Cover Story

An ethical wake-up call

Issue: "Humanity Under the Microscope," Dec. 8, 2001

The clonal age is here. We cannot say that we were not warned. Nobel laureate James D. Watson (co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the DNA molecule) predicted the coming of "clonal man" more than 30 years ago. He called for society to make hard decisions about the morality and legality of cloning technologies, warning, "If we do not think about it now, the possibility of our having a free choice will one day suddenly be gone."

The Nov. 25 announcement from Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT) that the company had cloned several embryos was carefully scripted. The company made arrangements with U.S. News and World Report and Scientific American to give the story top coverage. The actual research report was released through

e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine, in which the cloning experiments were identified as "somatic cell nuclear transfer in humans."

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ACT execs cloaked their motive in therapeutic language. ACT president Michael West declared that "for the sake of medicine, we need to set our fears aside." But the company's motivation appears to be financial. The timing of the announcement suggests that the company wants the publicity and momentum of being first to declare the cloning of human embryos.

The experiment was not an unqualified success. Although ACT was able to "parthenogenically activate" 22 human eggs and perform nuclear transfer on 17 eggs, none of the embryos survived beyond just a few cell divisions-all short of producing the stem cells for which the researchers had hoped. Some scientists quickly declared the experiment a failure.

But the ACT announcement is a major milestone in medical ethics. A moral threshold has been crossed, and proponents of cloning are certain that time is on their side.

A clear majority of Americans, but not the medical establishment, oppose human cloning. Most scientists express repugnance at the idea of "reproductive cloning" to produce babies, but many support "therapeutic cloning" to produce human embryos for stem-cell research.

ACT officials emphatically denied that they intended to produce a cloned human being. But they said that they would soon be able to produce cloned embryos mature enough to produce "totipotent" stem cells that could be used to treat illnesses or even produce tissues and organs for transplantation. Of course, reproductive cloning is just an extension of therapeutic cloning.

The ACT announcement is a wake-up call for the American conscience. The public-relations campaign behind the announcement is an indication of their strategy to seduce citizens into complacency:

Change the language. Americans attach moral significance to the human embryo, so proponents of cloning attempt to rename the embryo as a "pre-embryo," an "embryolike entity," an "ovumsum," and an "activated egg." These euphemisms are carefully designed to deny the sanctity of human life behind a confusion of language. Dr. West even claims that the embryos are not human life: "They are only cellular life." The distinction has no medical or moral basis.

Call together some "ethicists for hire" to provide moral cover. ACT boasts of its "Ethics Advisory Board" that provides "independent and informed advice" on "matters of ethical importance." Members receive "only a modest fee," but as Ronald Green, the group's chairman, admitted, "We wouldn't have been there unless we thought that the research had important benefits."

Get out ahead of impending legislation. The U.S. House passed the "Weldon-Stupak Bill" that would outlaw all human cloning. The Senate may consider a similar bill proposed by Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback in February-or sooner. ACT is determined to beat the Senate to the punch.

Break down moral resistance. ACT and its allies are counting on the American propensity to lose moral outrage.

Warn that if the research is banned in the United States, other nations will allow the technology and leap ahead. Following this logic, the U.S. government should lead the world in producing new viruses as weapons of mass destruction.

Scientists will debate the therapeutic significance of the ACT research report, but the moral significance is obvious to all who recognize the sanctity and dignity of human life.

R. Albert Mohler
R. Albert Mohler

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