WASHINGTON - "I want my son back," begins the father's e-mail,
asking if he could have his deceased 8-year-old cloned.
"Let's say I am 33 and I want a clone.
Is my clone also 33 or are they born as a baby?" asks another e-mail.
Then there's the infertile woman who calls cloning her "only option"
for a child but wants to know
if a clone could look like both parents "or do you have to choose just one?"
Read messages on Internet sites touting the possibility of human cloning
and a trend emerges: Many Americans
don't understand what cloning means, much less how risky animal experiments show the technology to be today.
Mainstream scientists, already furious that some infertility doctors
and a religious cult plan to try human cloning,
cringe even more at the confusion of people desperate to believe cloning will help them soon.
Cloning's not very popular: A poll of 1,000 adults to be released Tuesday
by the American Museum of Natural
History concluded 92 percent of Americans wouldn't approve of cloning to reproduce a favorite person.
Some 86 percent wouldn't even want to clone a pet.
Still, proponents claim lists of hundreds clamoring for cloning services
and told Congress last week that they could
perform it safely simply by testing clone-embryos for defects before implanting them into women.
But if such tests were available today, animal cloning wouldn't fail so often, say animal cloners.
Despite headlines and photographs of Dolly the sheep and cloned cows, pigs, goats and mice, most animal clones still die, usually during embryonic development. Others are stillborn with monstrous abnormalities. Bloated mothers have laborious miscarriages, and occasionally die themselves. Clones struggle for air in intensive care, only to have to be euthanized.
Even initial survivors remain fragile. Monday, California scientists reported that two recently cloned cows died, presumably because immune-system defects left them unable to fight infection.
Nor have scientists yet cloned primates, humans' closest relative.
So what would initial human cloning attempts be like? Massachusetts
Institute of Technology biologist
Rudolf Jaenisch paints a grim scenario:
For the first 100 attempts, expect about five live births.
Surrogate mothers may experience risky miscarriages, stillbirths at
the least a hard pregnancy, carrying both a
fetus and placenta that are abnormally large. Some cloned animals were born twice as large as they should be.
Some babies who survive birth will die in days or weeks from abnormal hearts, kidneys, livers or lungs.
One baby, maybe two, will survive appearing outwardly normal. But is the brain normal? Do cells multiply properly so he doesn't get cancer or age rapidly? Will he die later in childhood from immune defects?
"Absolutely it's doable," Jaenisch says of cloning technology. But unless
it's improved in animals before human
experiments, "the deaths might not be the worst. The worst might be the ones born and kept alive on a respirator."
Then consider the false expectations. Cloning isn't like Hollywood portrays it. No, you wouldn't get a 33-year-old twin by the time the clone was 33, you'd be 66 and nine months. No mixing of both parents' traits; only genes from one would be used.
And despite parents' heartbreaking hopes, it could not resurrect a deceased
child. It could replicate only DNA,
not the impossible-to-duplicate environment and experiences that created someone's unique personality and
character. Texas A&M University animal cloner Mark Westhusin says that "extremely troubling" confusion
means the grief-stricken are vulnerable to scams.
Cloning proponents rightly note that society once feared in-vitro fertilization,
calling it unethical or warning of
monstrous defects before the first test-tube baby was born. Many mainstream scientists agree human cloning
will be tried eventually, and perhaps become an accepted infertility treatment.
But is it likely here soon? Some in Congress want a formal cloning ban
controversial because scientists fear a
poorly worded ban could hurt research on cellular cloning for medical therapies. Regardless of any new law,
the government has warned an Italian-Kentucky infertility duo and would-be cloners with the Raelian religious
group that it won't permit human cloning in this country until the technology's proven safer.