London (CNSNews.com) - Despite widespread revulsion and moves to outlaw the practice, American and Italian scientists announced Friday they will press ahead with plans to clone human beings, something they hope to accomplish within two years.
British pro-lifers reacted with sorrow to the development, linking it to their own government's recent decision to legalize embryonic cloning for therapeutic research "in blatant contravention of international consensus."
Speaking at a press conference alongside a cloning symposium in Rome, Prof. Panayiotis Zavos of Lexington, Kentucky and Italian fertility specialist Severino Antinori said they wanted to help infertile couples have children by cloning babies.
Ten such couples had already expressed a willingness to participate in the experiment, which will possibly take place in an unidentified Mediterranean country, they said.
Antinori said he was calling on "all of us in the scientific community to be prudent and calm."
"Cloning creates ordinary children," he argued. "They will be unique individuals, not photocopies of individuals."
"Cloning may be considered as the last frontier to overcome male sterility and give the possibility to infertile males to pass on their genetic pattern."
Zavos, professor of reproductive physiology at the University of Kentucky, said their plans had drawn a very positive response from couples keen to have children.
"They come to us and they don't call you names, they don't cuss you, they don't say you're unethical," he said. "They said: 'Help me.' "
In 1996, the world's first mammal, Dolly the sheep, was successfully cloned. The two scientists plans to use similar procedure - injecting genetic material from the male into an egg whose DNA has been removed, which will then be implanted in the woman's womb and be carried to term.
The child will be a genetic copy of his father, and share some physical characteristics.
"Dolly is here and we are next," Zavos said.
But Dr. Harry Griffin of Scotland's Roslin Institute - Dolly's creators - has expressed firm opposition to human cloning, pointing to a high failure rate in animals, and the risk to mother and child.
Many cloned creatures die in a late stage of pregnancy or soon after birth, he said, and only some two per cent of cloned embryos make it to term. The Roslin Institute says it took 277 tries to succeed with Dolly.
Antinori told the Rome conference the scientists did not intend to break any laws. A protocol banning human cloning recently came into effect in some European countries.
But Britain recently voted to allow limited research into embryonic cloning for strictly "therapeutic" purposes - stem cell research - a step Antinori said had helped their project.
In London, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said it was concerned and saddened by the news from Rome.
Pro-life groups and scientists had warned that the UK legislation would inevitably lead to reproductive cloning, SPUC national director John Smeaton said.
"Tragically, this prediction now appears to be coming true even sooner than many of us had feared."
Noting that Antinori had thanked Prime Minister Tony Blair for making it possible to go ahead with his own plans, Smeaton added: "Without Britain's lead on therapeutic cloning, Professor Antinori's plans for reproductive cloning would not have been feasible."
SPUC is opposed to therapeutic as well as reproductive cloning. In both processes, "countless human embryos" will be destroyed, Smeaton said.
"All human cloning is a blatant denial of human dignity. It is to the great shame of our country's leaders that Britain has taken the lead in this repugnant technology."
The Vatican has spearheaded religious opposition to cloning as well as the manipulation of existing human embryos - such as "spares" from IVF treatment - for research.
Scientists believe that stem cells can be used to treat degenerative diseases. Some argue that those harvested from embryos would offer better results, while others - backed by prolife groups - say adult stem cells, taken for example from newborn babies' umbilical cords and from placentas, offer an effective and ethical alternative.
Monsignor Mauro Cozzoli of the Vatican Bioethics Commission was quoted earlier Friday as saying: "Cloning is immoral. Every child must be born with his or her genetic individuality. They should not be simply a photocopy of someone else."
The world's first international anti-cloning agreement came into effect earlier this month when five European parliaments ratified a Council of Europe measure called the Protocol on the Prohibition of Cloning Human Beings.
Twenty-four of the 43 Council of Europe member states have signed the protocol, but it only took effect once ratified by five legislatures. Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia and Georgia have now done so. Neither Britain nor Germany have signed it.
Formed in 1949, the Council of Europe is an association of European states distinct from the EU. It is best known for its European Convention on Human Rights.