Features

Cloning to kill

National | Congress debates whether to ban the manufacturing of human embryos for medical experimentation

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

in Washington-When it comes to the issue of cloning, prepare to see double ... or triple, or quadruple, or more. In a sure sign of its growing importance on Capitol Hill, cloning has become the subject of multiple bills introduced in Congress this spring. And that's only the beginning, according to some experts. "I believe the cloning issue will be the most contentious issue before Congress in the next 10 years," said John Cusey, director of the Pro-Life Caucus in the House of Representatives. "It's going to realign people politically. It's absolutely huge because the stakes are so high. We're talking about biotech companies wanting eventually to remake what it means to be human." Despite the enormity of the issue, the United States has no laws to regulate the fast-moving science of cloning. Most researchers have agreed to a temporary moratorium on cloning experiments, but there is nothing to stop them from reneging on their promise. In fact, a scientist in Kentucky, along with a colleague in Italy, have already announced that they intend to clone a human this year. Meanwhile, a religious cult known as the Raelian movement says it has already begun cloning experiments of its own. Lawmakers are tripping over themselves to fill in the legislative gap. The bill most clearly based on pro-life principles was introduced in late April by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.). Researchers who flouted their ban on human cloning experiments would face million-dollar fines and up to 10 years in prison. As of last week, the legislation was being debated in committee, and Mr. Weldon expects a floor vote in the House by July. The multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry reacted with predictable alarm. Carl Feldbaum, whose Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) represents some 950 member companies, rushed to Capitol Hill to lobby against the Brownback-Weldon law. "Let me begin by making my position perfectly clear," he told a Senate subcommittee. "BIO opposes human reproductive cloning. It is simply too unsafe technically and raises far too many unresolved ethical and social questions." But Mr. Feldbaum went on to say that his organization strongly supports "therapeutic" cloning, in which scientists create human embryos for medical experimentation. By harvesting cells from these tiny beings, biotech companies believe they can find cures for almost every human malady, from juvenile diabetes to age-related dementia. In the words of Mr. Feldman: "Therapeutic cloning techniques are central to the production of breakthrough medicines, diagnostics, and vaccines to treat Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, heart attacks, various cancers and hundreds of other genetic diseases." But at what price? Current regulations require that scientists treat human embryos with "profound respect." By any definition, widespread cloning would make such respect impossible. Embryos by the thousands would be destroyed once the stem cells were harvested. During the debate over stem-cell research several years ago, advocates insisted they merely wanted to experiment on what they called "spare" embryos, such as those left over from fertility treatments. But with billions of dollars riding on research breakthroughs, the demand for embryos has outstripped the supply, as economic and political pressure for cloning increases. Dr. Bob Scheidt, chairman of the Ethics Commission at the Christian Medical and Dental Association, believes that therapeutic cloning is "detestable" because it would treat human life merely as the means to an end: "It would surely lead to an industry dedicated to creating human beings en masse for the purposes of enhancing the lives of other human beings." Once the stuff of fevered imaginations, the science of cloning human embryos is now relatively straightforward. Unlike sexual reproduction, in which two different genetic codes are combined to form a uniquely different individual, cloning replicates the genes of a single, existing human being. Scientists hollow out the nucleus of an unfertilized egg, removing the genes that would otherwise unite with the genes carried in a sperm cell. Instead, they insert the nucleus of a donor cell, which already carries the complete genetic blueprint of its owner. A tiny electric shock causes the engineered egg to start dividing, forming a new person. But in this case, the person isn't new. Because the genes in the embryo precisely match those of the donor, the donor is essentially copying himself, repeating his own development from the moment of his conception. There's an important difference, of course: When the donor was conceived, his tiny embryo attached itself to his mother's uterus, allowing it to grow and find nourishment. Rudolf Jaenisch, a cloning expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says medical researchers would ensure that cloned embryos would never see the inside of a womb. He favors a ban on reproductive cloning-which is risky and unproven-but supports cloning embryos for therapeutic purposes. The embryo is nothing more than a "ball of cells" until it is implanted in a uterus, he says. "Is this a small person? Some people would probably believe it is.... I think the majority of scientists do not believe that," he told the Chicago Tribune. But Dr. Scheidt at CMDA disagrees. The cloned embryo's "ultimate origin is a human father and mother. Anything with that origin is human until proven otherwise," he said. "A fertilized egg is a human being. An embryo is a human being. Certainly a clone, if it is successful, is a human being and must be treated with the respect that goes with that title.... Even a purely secular viewpoint would certainly grant that a complete genome is technically a human being. Scientifically it's human and therefore must be granted the basic human right of autonomy." With polls showing 90 percent of Americans opposed to cloning, biotech supporters on Capitol Hill have to convince the public that cloned embryos are not "real" clones, much less real humans. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), and Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Penn.) have all proposed legislation that would allow researchers to create and experiment on cloned embryos, provided those embryos are never implanted. That would placate a public fearful of cloning, while still creating few impediments to medical research. Since the bills would prohibit cloned babies from being born, supporters insist they amount to a cloning ban. But opponents have another name for the compromise measures: "cloning to kill." "I find [that approach] ethically and morally reprehensible," said Rep. Weldon. "It's one thing to argue that a developing embryo is not a person and therefore shouldn't be protected. But it's totally different to say that we're going to create thousands of human embryos in a lab for the sole purpose of destruction. That's an abomination." Rep. Weldon, who is a physician himself, believes the whole "therapeutic cloning" label amounts to little more than a smokescreen. "This is not about good science; it's about good ethics," he said. Scientists "make the claim that you might need new tissues or organs, so they could make a cloned copy of you in the lab and obtain the stem cells you need. But the technology is not there to do that. Most of the good research I've seen suggests you can get all the stem cells you need from adult sources like fat tissue or bone marrow. So to go to that extreme [of cloning for stem cells] is not only gruesome but unnecessary." If the ultimate goal of the biotech industry is not medical therapies, then what? Mr. Cusey believes researchers want to "practice" with therapeutic cloning while they build up their safety ratings and perfect their science. Only then could they turn science fiction into Nobel Prize-winning fact by giving birth to cloned humans. Both the science and the economics are already in place. A half-dozen companies are currently cloning goats, sheep, cattle, and pigs, for which farmers pay up to $25,000 each. The practice is widespread enough that a surprised FDA last week warned farmers not to sell meat or milk from cloned animals until the products could be thoroughly tested for safety. With animal cloning making such rapid strides, safety fears over human cloning may be swept away relatively quickly. Other fertility treatments, including in vitro fertilization, were quickly adapted for humans once perfected on animals. Even scientists who oppose human cloning, such as Randall Prather of the University of Missouri, recognize that safety concerns may be a moot point within 15 years, leaving only moral and ethical bulwarks against the brave new world of manufactured humanity.

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