(CBS) Religious and political leaders worldwide, from President Bush to the Vatican, condemned news that a U.S. company had cloned a human embryo for the first time.
The announcement Sunday by Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) of Worcester, Mass, raised a multitude of questions over cloning, with Mr. Bush calling it "morally wrong" and others saying the company had crossed a moral and ethical line.
"The use of embryos to clone is wrong," Mr. Bush said. "We should not as a society grow life to destroy it. And that's exactly what's taking place. And I have made that position very clear," he told reporters.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer urged Congress to ban human cloning, saying the president viewed this as a wise action to take. The House has already passed legislation banning the kind of procedure used by ACT but the Senate has not yet acted on the law.
"The president hopes that as a result of this first crossing of the line and this first step into the morally consequential realm of creating a life to take a life in the name of science, that the Senate will act on the House legislation so that this procedure can be banned," Fleischer said.
In an equally blunt statement, the Vatican charged that the American company had tampered with human life.
"Notwithstanding the humanistic intents ... this calls for a calm but resolute appraisal which shows the moral gravity of this project and calls for unequivocal condemnation," the Vatican said in a statement from Rome.
Advanced Cell Technology says it hopes to develop genetically compatible replacement cells for patients with a range of illnesses - not human clones.
"The medical applications are so dramatic and compelling that frankly we don't think about, nor have any interest in, the cloning of a human being," Michael West, the company's top executive, told CBS News.
Nevertheless, the company's announcement produced an outpouring of criticism. Roman Catholic leaders condemned what they called the loss of innocent human life involved in the research.
"Cloning violates the dignity and the identity of human life," the influential Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone told Italy's Corriere della Sera daily.
Raymond Flynn, president of the National Catholic Alliance and a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said in a statement: "Some may call it a medical breakthrough. I believe it is a moral breakdown."
Australian Senator Brian Harradine said the research firm was "tinkering with the very essence of human life."
"Urgent action is needed to ban cloning of human embryos for any purpose and to cut off funding for any scientist or company involved," Harradine said.
A parliamentary committee recommended last month that Australia should ban all cloning to produce humans and creating embryos for experimentation but favoured using surplus human embryos from fertility programmes for research.
The researchers at Advanced Cell Technology "are the first to transgress the taboo of the human body," French bioethics specialist and president of the Liberal Democratic party Jean-Francois Mattei said.
"It is extremely serious," he told Le Figaro newspaper in an interview.
France's La Tribune newspaper said in an editorial the breakthrough was a major step toward human cloning.
"The taboo of human cloning has been shattered in the United States," read a front page headline. Even though the advantages of cloning were clear, "the risk of using this technique for human reproduction...is gigantic."
Company officials insisted their work is the first step in providing hope for people with spinal injuries, heart disease and other ailments.
The Advanced Cell Technology researchers say they cloned a six-cell human embryo starting with a donated female egg cell. They removed its nucleus and replaced it with a cumulus cell, complete with its genetic DNA. Cumulus cells normally help nurture eggs as they develop.
Such a technique could only yield replacement cells for women of childbearing age. But the researchers have also experimented with injecting cells with DNA from skin cells.
In a separate experiment, the researchers say they were able to develop a more advanced embryo, known as a blastocyst, in a process known as parthenogenesis. They bathed an egg cell with chemicals that changed its concentration of charged particles, reprogramming it to form an embryo.
The research was said to be very preliminary. Neither experiment were found to produce the master cells known as stem cells, which differentiate into other body tissues.
A second company quickly claimed Sunday it had also cloned human embryos, but in unpublished research. That company, Clonaid, hopes eventually to clone human beings. "I'm very pleased that I'm not alone," said company Director Brigitte Boisselier. "We're doing embryos every day."
She refused to give details of the work. The company says it keeps its laboratory location secret for security reasons.
©MMI CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press and Reuters Limited contributed to this report.