Don't Rush To Ban Cloning
Blanket proposals by Bush, House would unduly restrict valuable medical research
The experiments raise more complex scientific and ethical questions than any issue Congress has recently faced. Yet lawmakers should not use the difficulty of navigating ethical shoals as an excuse to ban the procedure. The potential medical benefits of stem cells created through “therapeutic cloning” are significant, and the procedure—which takes place in a petri dish—is ethically acceptable. Congress should establish procedures for the oversight and regulation of such research where necessary. It should not place a ban on promising scientific research out of a vague feeling of discomfort.
The embryos at Advanced Cell Technologies were created through a technique known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” in which the genetic material of a developed cell (such as a stem cell) is inserted into an egg. The same technique was used by researchers in Scotland to conceive Dolly the sheep in 1997. Though the experiment was far from a success—none of the embryos grew to larger than six cells before dying—it set a precedent for future research that could eventually result in the birth of a child conceived through cloning.
However, the experiments described in the Journal of Regenerative Medicine were not intended to result in the creation of a child. Rather, they were aimed at realizing the medical potential of research in embryonic stem cells. These cells, found in week-old embryos, have not yet specialized and retain the ability to develop into any type of tissue found in the body. Stem cell-based treatments hold out the hope of reversing progressive nervous disorders, such as Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis, and of replacing the weakened insulin-producing cells that cause diabetes. A September report by an expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found that embryonic stem cell research could be used to treat conditions as varied as heart disease, severe burns and cancer, with significant benefits for more than 100 million Americans.
Although stem cells are also found in adults, the NAS panel (as well as an earlier report by the National Institutes of Health) found that stem cells derived from embryos are far more versatile. By generating embryonic cells that are genetically identical to that of the patient, therapeutic cloning offers a means of producing stem cells that will be accepted by the body without the need for dangerous immunosuppressive drugs. The NAS panel therefore described embryonic cloning as an “attractive option” for overcoming the problem of immune rejection and for turning research breakthroughs into actual treatments.
But in order to begin helping patients, scientists like those at Advanced Cell Technologies will first have to overcome a hostile President and convince an uneasy Congress. Those who oppose abortion or believe that life begins at conception have campaigned vigorously against the research. But many Americans do not believe that a week-old embryo—an entity that does not have thoughts, feelings or the ability to experience pain—possesses rights or makes moral claims. These questions are not unprecedented. The procedure of in vitro fertilization, which has been used for decades to help infertile couples conceive children, similarly creates of scores of embryos which will eventually be destroyed. Research in therapeutic cloning has significant potential to alleviate suffering, and Congress should not prevent its potential from being realized.
That said, there are a number of legitimate worries regarding reproductive cloning, the use of cloning to create a child. Animals conceived through cloning have displayed significantly higher rates of genetic defects and deformities, something unacceptable in research involving humans. Until the scientific assessments change, Congress must act to ban reproductive cloning as a simple matter of safety. Additionally, the possible societal implications of cloning’s widespread use have barely been explored. Yet the mere possibility that a child might someday be conceived through cloning—resembling an identical twin of its genetic parent rather than a perfect replica—should not be so concerning that promising research is banned altogether.
Before it passed a blanket ban on somatic cell nuclear transfer this July, the House also considered a bill which would have placed a temporary ban on reproductive cloning and would have established some government oversight of this largely unregulated field. The latter approach offers far more promise to prevent dangerous experimentation while allowing vital research to continue. With the health and lives of so many Americans on the line, it is the only ethical choice.