No, this isn't a scene from a soon-to-be released B movie. It was the scene Friday at a press conference held by controversial scientists Panayiotis Zavos, Severino Antinori and Ali Ben Abraham. Surrounded by crowds of journalists and photographers, the men announced to a packed hall in Rome, Italy, that they were poised to begin a human cloning project. The team, which has already received messages of interest from 700 infertile couples, hopes to produce a successful clone in the next two years. Clones, the most famous of which remains Dolly the sheep, are created when an adult cell is merged with an egg cell, the genes of which have been removed.
Antinori, Ben Abraham and Zavos are modern-day rebels, even in the sometimes eccentric field of cloning. Antinori is also part of a team that says it will create its first human clone in 2002. Zavos, quoted above, is a well-known fixture in the world of cloning research; he and Antinori have long advocated human cloning as "the logical next step" in reproductive science, insisting the practice will provide new hope for couples who have been unable to have children. Friday, Antinori was particularly voluble when asked to defend the pending project against ethical and scientific concerns. "We're talking science; we're not here to create a fuss," he said. "I'm asking all of us to be prudent and calm."
But opponents of cloning aren't feeling particularly calm the Roman Catholic Church joined in a somewhat unlikely alliance with biomedical researchers and medical ethicists in voicing fierce aversion to the scientists' plans. "Those who made the atom bomb went ahead in spite of knowing about its terrible destruction," Bishop Elio Sgreccia, head of the John Paul II Institute for Bioethics, told Reuters Friday. "But this doesn't mean that it was the best choice for humanity."
Not every scientist subscribes to this ominous philosophy. Greg Pence, professor of bioethics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, predicts that people will get more comfortable with the idea of cloning as time passes. "Science fiction movies have taught us that this technology must create mutants, but in fact, any problems we're facing are merely technical," Pence told TIME.com. "And fear of technical problems is just masking other problems people have with the idea of cloning."
Elsewhere in Europe, public distaste for the concept of cloning has reached the highest ranks of government. Thursday, legislatures in Slovakia, Slovenia, Greece, Spain and Georgia ratified a protocol to its Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. It is, according to the council, "the first and only binding international agreement on cloning." Member nations are strictly prohibited from developing technology that could lead to the cloning of humans. France has outlawed human cloning altogether.