Minor Cloning Advancement Shouldn't Prevent Necessary Deliberation

30 November 2001

By Stentor Danielson

The word "cloning" was all over the headlines this week. On Sunday, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) announced that it had cloned human embryos, sparking renewed consideration of an issue that had been raised this summer as President Bush considered whether to allow embryonic stem cell research and a religious sect calling itself the Raelians declared its commitment to cloning humans.

It had been easy to push cloning concerns to the realm of hypothetical situations, as cloning experiments on other animals had shown enormous problems with producing viable embryos. A report released a week from yesterday indicated that 24 of 30 cloned cows are healthy after four years, signaling progress in combating the abnormalities that have plagued animal clones and made human cloning seem a bad idea at present, even among cloning supporters. Three days later, ACT made its momentous announcement.

The hype surrounding ACTís accomplishment obscures the fact that the cloning was a small step. After unsuccessfully implanting genetic material from skin cells into an egg, scientists tried using cumulus cells, whose role is to nourish a developing embryo. This technique produced three successful cases, the hardiest of which lived to six cells. An embryo must reach 100 cells before stem cells, the key to the therapeutic value of cloning, begin to form.

The advance was billed in some quarters as giving hope for powerful new medical treatments. Existing strategies for replacing damaged organs, such as transplants, as well as treatments expected to arise from the use of stem cells taken from spare embryos created in the process of in vitro fertilization, are plagued by rejection of the organ by the recipient. Cloning-based treatments are expected to reduce the problems of rejection by producing replacement organs and tissues that are an exact genetic match for the recipient.

However, the ethical consequences of cloning are potentially serious. Reproductive cloning -- the use of cloning to produce embryos that are then raised as any other children -- is widely held to be (at the least) dangerous, especially given the physical abnormalities animal clones have experienced to date. But therapeutic cloning, as proposed by ACT, is a trickier issue. Many people were quick to decry the cloning experiment, charging that researchers were "creating life in order to destroy it." The Roman Catholic Church, in keeping with its stance on abortion, declared that life begins when the egg is fertilized, meaning that cloning would encounter the same moral problems as abortion. Fears of a slippery slope from therapeutic to reproductive cloning abound.

Britainís House of Lords was quick to pass a bill banning cloning in the wake of the announcement. President Bush called for Congress to follow suit. In July, the House passed a cloning ban by a vote of 265-162. The Senate agreed to take up the issue, scheduling a thorough debate for the spring. In the wake of ACTís announcement, Bush and others are pushing for the decision to be moved up. The Senate will vote on a six-month ban on Monday.

I cannot say whether cloning is right or wrong. I can see the medical benefits to be brought by cloning research, but I remain uncertain whether these are outweighed by the protections, if any, that should be accorded to embryos. And it is difficult to say how slippery the slope is between seemingly benign therapeutic cloning and more dangerous and ethically problematic practices. But, though I donít know what the final verdict on cloning should be, it does seem clear that allowing the Senate debate to stay on its original schedule is more likely to bring about a good decision.

The announcement by ACT has all the marks of a publicity stunt. The hype engine of popular opinion and the media did us no favors by latching onto the word "cloning," which to many minds brings scenes out of science fiction of factories mass-producing identical babies. All this charges the question with a great deal of emotion. This is apparent from statements like Representative Chris Smith, R-N.J., who declared, "Mad scientists are still mad scientists no matter how white their lab coats are and how many bioethicists they hire to justify their actions." People are reacting to a sudden change in an issue that had been on the back burner after the nation came to terms with Bushís announcement of a ban on federal funding for new embryonic stem cell lines.

It is legitimate to ask why Congress canít pass a temporary moratorium on cloning as a precaution until a full debate can be held. But there is little need for immediate action. The amount of damage that could be caused by cloning between now and this spring, even taking the strictest ethical stance, is very small. The clones created by ACT were so short-lived as to make the experiment only the most unsteady first step toward useful cloning techniques for humans. Professor Ian Wilmut, head of the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, called the ACT experiment "pretty irrelevant" to progress on human cloning. And despite the successes recently reported among cattle, problems of deformities in clones remain significant, and such problems become even more unacceptable -- thus requiring more certainty of success before experiments are tried -- in the case of humans. Indeed, the ACT experiment was very nearly a failure.

There are also problems to an immediate moratorium. In imposing it, Congress would send the message that it is opposed to cloning, rather than that it wanted to be safe while it considers the issue further. This would drive a wedge between lawmakers and corporations experimenting with cloning, reducing the possibilities for cooperation in implementation of the eventual solution. As it seems likely that Congress will ultimately ban cloning, any goodwill it can foster with the corporations whose research will be cut off will be important.

Congress must also resist the urge to politicize the issue when emotions are running as high as they are following the unexpected announcement. Battle lines drawn in haste can be difficult to erase, and there would be pressure on many moderate Senators to choose sides prematurely.

Cloning of humans, even if only for therapeutic purposes, is a thorny issue that deserves long and careful deliberation. Congress must resist the urge to let a small experiment by ACT get blown out of proportion and drive them to a hasty decision.

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