Religious and political leaders, from President Bush to the Vatican, sharply criticized the announcement that private scientists in Massachusetts had succeeded in creating the first cloned human embryo, pushing religion and science onto an expected but as yet uncharted ethical frontier. The scientists insisted the work aimed to produce stem cells for new medical therapies rather than cloning a human being.

Bush, during a session with reporters following a meeting with freed Afghan aid workers Heather Mercer and Dana Curry, was asked about the announcement Sunday that Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., had succeeded in growing--for only a few hours--cloned human embryos of four to six cells. "We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it," Bush said, "and that's exactly what's taking place, and I have made that position very clear." He said the scientific work in Massachusetts was "bad public policy. Not only that, it's morally wrong in my opinion."

Federal money cannot be used for cloning research involving human embryos, so much of the scientific work in the field is being carried out by private firms.

The Vatican, responding with unusual speed to Sunday's announcement, said Monday (Nov. 26) that despite the "humanistic intentions" of scientists, the first cloning of human embryos is an act of "moral gravity" that must be unequivocally condemned. Calling the experiment a significant ethical event, the Vatican said it reopened the debate over when human life begins. The Roman Catholic Church believes that life begins not at birth but at the fertilization of an egg. "Despite the declared humanistic intentions of the striking cures predicted from this road that passes through the industry of cloning, a calm but firm valuation is required which shows the moral gravity of this project and motivates its unequivocable condemnation," the Vatican said.

It was the third time in two weeks that the Vatican has spoken out against the cloning of human beings. The church also opposes test tube fertilization for couples who cannot naturally conceive a child. Archbishop Rafaele Renato Martino, the Vatican's permanent observer to the United Nations, said Nov. 19 that the Vatican backs a proposed international convention against human cloning. He charged that cloning of human beings would "contaminate and desecrate the future of humankind."

And last week, Pope John Paul II, in a message to a congress on biology, medicine and society held near Paris, said human stem cells must be "treated with respect" because of "the human patrimony of which they are carriers."

Researchers at Advanced Cell Technologies reported that the human embryos they cloned grew only for several hours, long enough to form four to six cells each. Their goal is to succeed in growing them to a mass of several hundred calls in order to isolate embryonic stem cells with the potential of regenerating tissue and organs. One of the conditions scientists hope to treat with stem cells is Parkinson's disease, a debilitating neurological disorder from which the 81-year-old John Paul is believed to suffer.

In the United States, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, called the news "deeply disturbing." "The arrogance that leads someone to believe he can take on the role of God and reduce humans to mere `spare parts,'" McCarrick said, "is an arrogance which has dangerous implications we cannot fully anticipate."

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Sunday's announcement underscored the need for immediate congressional enactment of a "comprehensive ban on human cloning, including somatic cell nuclear transfers and parthenogenesis."

"By its own admission," Land said, "Advanced Cell Technology created cloned human embryos for the purpose of experimentation. Human embryo-destructive experimentation is unconscionable and must no longer be permitted." In July, the House of Representatives approved legislation that would ban all cloning of human beings, including embryos, but the Senate has yet to take up the proposal. Land said Sunday's announcement makes it "critical" for the Senate to act before Christmas.

Both Land and the Vatican rejected the language the researchers used to describe their work. In particular, the Vatican statement faulted the use of the term "early embryo" to describe the cloned embryos. "Here we face a human embryo and not a cell as some would like us to believe," it said. "The start of human life cannot be fixed by convention at a certain stage of the embryo's development," the statement said.

Also joining the call for congressional action were a number of conservative Christian political action groups, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition and the Christian Legal Society.

But Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' Department of Jewish Family Concerns, said the Reform movement was strongly supportive of the weekend announcement, viewing it as "pikuach nefesh--the saving of life and founded in Jewish tradition and text."

Echoing Bush, the 14,000-member Christian Medical Association also condemned the reported research, saying, "It is wrong to create human life for the purpose of destroying it." "Human clones are not merely, as some biotech industry representatives would have us believe, potential human beings. They are human beings."

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