A Buena Vista University professor says technology could advance far enough by the year 2010 for scientists to produce the world's first verifiable human clone, a scientific achievement that would rival the discovery of DNA or the formulation of a polio vaccine.
Whether that scientific advancement would be a good thing, however, is still up for debate, and it is a topic that is on the minds of people living everywhere from Storm Lake to Washington, D.C.
Members of the House of Representatives, including Iowa Fifth District Representative Steve King, recently passed the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003.
The bill makes it illegal to clone or attempt to clone humans, and also makes importing an embryo produced by human cloning into the country an illegal act - punishable by a fine of no less that $1 million or prison for up to 10 years.
The legislation would not prohibit research in the use of nuclear transfer or other cloning techniques to produce molecules, DNA, cells other than human embryos, tissues, organs, plants or animals other than humans.
The bill heads to the U.S. Senate for approval.
King, who voted for the act, and he said the issue was one of ethical importance for him.
"I am unequivocally opposed to the cloning of human beings," King said. "The moral issues posed by human cloning, whether for reproduction or research, are profound and cannot be ignored."
Those same reservations about the practice are shared by both Pastor Tom Hinshaw of the First Baptist Church in Storm Lake and Dr. David Crippin of the Buena Vista Clinic, who both said producing clones could also produce many unintended consequences.
"I think just because we can do something doesn't mean we need to," Hinshaw said. "I'd put human cloning in this category for sure. It looks like there would be more problems with it than benefits, and society has enough problems."
"Ethically I think it creates more problems than what it's worth," Crippin said. "It really is an ethical nightmare, because it comes down to what is life and should we be playing God?"
BVU professor James Hampton said people may be more familiar with human clones than they may realize, however, as identical twins - which have been around as long as mankind - are natural clones of one another.
Hampton said laws passed to ban human cloning may be based more on emotional feelings than anything else.
"I would ask what is inherently abhorrent about a human clone that isn't present in an identical twin?" Hampton said.
Hampton said one of the biggest misunderstandings surrounding potential human clones is that they would be identical in every way to the original human. He said the clone might eventually grow up to physically look like the original person, but it would not be the same age and would grow up in a different environment, which would cause the development of completely different personality traits.
If human cloning is attempted somewhere in the world, scientists would use somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is the same procedure that was used to create Dolly the Sheep, the famous cloned animal that sparked international debate in 1997.
Somatic cell nuclear transfer starts when an egg from a donor is taken and the nucleus of that egg is removed, creating an enucleated egg. A cell is then taken from the person who is being cloned and is fused together with the enucleated egg using electricity. This process would create an embryo, which could then be implanted into a mother using in vitro fertilization.
However, the process has a low success rate, one of the biggest obstacles currently present in cloning research. It took 277 attempts by scientists to successfully create Dolly, and estimates are that only one or two embryos will be able to develop into mammals that could be born by mothers.
Hampton said the high number of medical issues and mistakes that are being seen in older cloned animals due to the primitive technology currently available in the field are a cause for concern when examining potential human cloning. Many clones have experienced problems such as defective hearts, diabetes, lung problems and malfunctioning immune systems, including Dolly, who died last month from a progressive lung disease.
"If you are cloning bananas and there is a mistake, then you can just throw it away and try it again," Hampton said. "But, if you have a human clone and there is a mistake, you can't throw it away, because that is a life."
Hinshaw agreed, and said the uncertainty of what could happen to human clones makes the practice ethically questionable for him.
"Since (cloning) would be producing human beings who might have trouble with health and lifespan, having their own children, having undreamed-of emotional and psychological problems, having their own identity, and so forth, I can't see it as ethical at this point," Hinshaw said. "I think we have enough challenges; I don't think we're ready for this."
Some proponents of cloning argue that it would create a person who has a genetic copy of the original human's organs, which would provide a back-up of sorts that the original person could use in case of emergency. To access that backup, however, the organs would have to be harvested from the clones, which would kill them.
To Hampton, that would be a practice that would be totally wrong.
"It's completely unethical to even talk about using human clones to harvest organs, because those clones would be human beings," Hampton said. "Those clones would be just as alive as you and me, and to create them solely for taking a heart or a lung out of them, which would kill them, would be morally wrong."
"Medically speaking, if you needed an organ and could take one from yourself gene-wise, that would be great, because your body wouldn't reject it," Crippin said. "But, if you were taking that from a clone then you would be considering it less than human and you would kill it, which are both extremely unethical. Harvesting would be something that would not be right at all."
Despite reservations from many of the world's citizens, Hampton said he predicts the first human clone will be on the planet by the end of the decade, and said it will likely come from either a fringe religious sect or a set of grieving parents wishing to have a dead child back.
"The technology will be there by then, and I think it's just a matter of time before that will happen," Hampton said.