WASHINGTON, D.C. — Somewhere in the world today, in secret laboratories, scientists are preparing to clone a human being. “We're doing it right now as we speak,” Panos Zavos, the Lexington, Ky., fertility doctor who announced he and a consortium of scientists would produce a human baby clone by 2003, said in a telephone interview in late July.

Zavos also said he was completely undeterred by a bill in the House of Representatives to ban all human cloning in the United States. The Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2001, introduced by Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., passed the House decisively July 31 by a vote of 265-162.

It would make any attempt to clone a human being by using somatic cell nuclear transfer (the process used to clone Dolly the sheep and several other animal species) a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison or a $1 million fine.

“We don't intend to break any laws,” said Zavos, director of the Andrology Institute of America. “We're not going to work in the United States.”

Zavos and his partner, Italian Severino Antinori, who has specialized in helping post-menopausal women — including a 62-year-old — to get pregnant, are at the front of a pack of maverick scientists racing to be first to clone a human.

They claim to have the support of thousands of infertile and homosexual couples, and parents grieving the loss of dead children. “One thousand couples have asked us for assistance in making a human clone,” Zavos said. “The demand is tremendous internationally.”

Rep. Weldon introduced his bill in April after Zavos and other pro-cloning researchers triggered alarm bells.

But in June, Rep. Jim Greenwood, DPa., introduced a competing bill. Pro-lifers tagged it “The Clone and Kill Act,” because it sought to prohibit so-called reproductive cloning, in which an embryo is implanted into a woman to be delivered, while allowing so-called therapeutic cloning, where human embryos are created then destroyed to allow their inner mass of stem cells to be harvested for research.

Critics pointed out that the Greenwood bill would not have banned cloning at all. Instead, it would have served to make trying to save the life of a cloned embryo, by implanting it, a crime.

Moreover, some experts, such as David Prentice, life sciences professor at Indiana State University School of Medicine and scientific adviser to Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., don't believe legislation like that introduced by Greenwood would even prevent “reproductive” cloning.

The bill called only for a ban on human cloning “with the intent to initiate pregnan cy.” Intentions can change, Prentice noted. “The wording is too vague,” he said.

U.S. Research Underway

Last month's announcement by the Worcester, Mass.-based Advanced Cell Technology, known for animal cloning experiments, that it is attempting to clone human embryos with hopes of farming them for stem cells, fired the House debate on Weldon's bill.

Therapeutic cloning advocates claimed harvesting cloned embryo stem cells could lead to cures for diseases from diabetes and Parkinson's.

“Why would we condemn the world and future generations not to have this miracle?” Greenwood said.

To that argument, Brownback, who has co-sponsored a bill in the Senate paralleling Weldon's legislation, said, “We have an answer. God has provided us with wonderful alternatives in adult human stem cells and stem cells from [newborn's] umbilical cord blood.”

Research with adult stem cells is already producing positive results in human patients, a claim which no embryonic stem cell researcher can make, he added.

Brownback called Greenwood's bill “utilitarian” and criticized its “lack of respect for each human being as a unique, never to be repeated child of the living God.” To allow human cloning for any reason, he believes, will inevitably lead to a culture of eugenics and to breeding and genetic modification of humans for superior qualities.

Perhaps with this fear in mind, the House rejected an amendment to the Weldon bill, based on Greenwood's competing bill, which would have allowed therapeutic cloning for research.

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, commended the House after the vote. He told Vatican Radio the bill “successfully harmonizes the logic of ethics, as regards human life, with scientific logic.”

President Bush, who is still weighing a related decision whether to allow federal funding of “therapeutic” stem cell research on cells derived from so-called leftover human embryos in fertility clinics, expressed similar support for the House vote.

Said Bush, “We must advance the promise and cause of science but must do so in a way that honors and respects life.”

But before Bush can sign the anti-cloning bill into law, after the August recess it must pass the Senate where it is expected to face stronger opposition. “There are not the same quantity of pro-lifers [as in the House],” said Brownback.

However, Brownback was surprised by the strong margin for the Weldon bill in the House, and he is hopeful liberal Democratic Senators will support a total cloning ban because they “see cloning more as a [human] manufacturing issue.”

Even adamant supporters of therapeutic stem cell research are troubled by human cloning, Brownback added, citing the recent comment by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., that he was “very uncomfortable” with cloning.

Daschle said July 31 that he was “opposed to the effort to clone under virtually any circumstances,” Associated Press reported.

In his formal remarks to President Bush at their July 23 meeting at Castel Gandolfo, Italy, Pope John Paul II said, “Experience is already showing how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the world, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide, and, most recently, proposals for the creations for research purposes of human embryos destined to destruction in the process.”

Added the Pope, “A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception to natural death.”

But researcher Zavos is not budging on his 2003 deadline for creating the world's first human clone. He and Antinori have already begun developing tissue cultures to assist cloning technology in laboratories outside the U.S.

“We've got two laboratories in two different places because, as the phrase goes,” Zavos said, “you should never put all your eggs in one basket.”

Weldon believes his bill, if it becomes law, will make Zavos and scientists like increasingly ostracized by sending a message that they are criminals and restricting their options as the international community moves to prohibit cloning, as major nations such as France and Germany have done already.

Technical Hurdles

Zavos also faces tremendous technical hurdles. Animal cloners have cited high miscarriage rates (90% in the first trimester of pregnancy) and numerous unexplained complications — squashed faces, obesity, immune disorders, and mysterious deaths of clones and their mothers.

As well, cloned animal babies and placentas are gigantic. A cloned human baby could weigh 12 or 15 pounds at birth. “They could kill a woman trying to do this,” said Weldon.

In July, Rudolph Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., and his colleagues published their findings that healthy, cloned mice possess a subtle “instability” in their genes that causes some genes to be expressed abnormally. The study, published in the journal Science, suggests that cloning causes fundamental errors.

Zavos, however, is unfazed. “I have a track record that is second to none,” he boasted at congressional hearings in the spring. “Those experiences cannot be diluted by just a few dead cattle out there in Texas.”

During those same hearings, Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., offered a chilling assessment of where that kind of thinking would lead humanity.

Said Largent, “Human cloning represents the first footstep into a dark wilderness from which we may never emerge.”

Celeste McGovern writes from Portland, Oregon.