Embryonic stem cells aren’t much in the news these days. President Bush’s embryonic stem cell funding restrictions are history and the invention of induced pluripotent stem cells may allow scientists to obtain the benefits of embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos.
But that doesn’t mean the struggle over our biotechnological future is over. To the contrary, the current relative quiet is merely a pregnant pause before the real storm descends that will decide—in the CBC’s pithy phrase—whether we will allow doctors and scientists to “take, make, and fake” human life.
And now that calm may be ending. A new bill was recently introduced in the House of Representatives that would radically change current law by legalizing the federal funding of human cloning research. “The Stem Cell Research Advancement Act of 2009” (HR 4808) pretends to be about setting Obama’s ESCR funding policy in statutory stone, this even though such funding is not threatened. It even pretends to enact a “prohibition against funding for human cloning.” But that assurance is profoundly dishonest. By defining human cloning in a scientifically inaccurate manner, the bill would actually legalize the very federal funding it purports to prevent. From the bill (emphasis added):
In this section, the term “human cloning” means the implantation of the product of transferring the nuclear material of a human somatic [body] cell into an egg cell from which the nuclear material has been removed or rendered inert into a uterus or the functional equivalent of a uterus.
But implantation is no more cloning than it is fertilization. Both processes begin a new life—the former “asexually” and the latter “sexually.” Implantation permits the already existing embryo—whether cloned (the “product” described in the legislation) or natural, it’s all the same—to continue to grow and develop until birth by providing the necessary womb environment—as happened with Dolly the sheep.
The important point to remember is that the cloning is complete when the embryo comes into being—not a week later when the embryo would be sufficiently developed to be implanted in a uterus. After that, there is no more cloning. Thus, by restricting the proposed ban on federal funding solely to research conducted on implanted cloned embryos—instead of the actual act of cloning—the bill clearly authorizes federal funding of human cloning and, moreover, research on cloned embryos outside a uterine environment.
Here’s why HB 4808 is a very big deal. Learning how to clone human life is the essential step needed to develop brave new world technologies such as genetic engineering, human enhancement, human/animal chimeras, fetal farming for organs, and, once it can be done without producing birth defects, reproductive cloning. Indeed, these agendas, more even than stem cells, are biotechnology’s ultimate goals.
But scientists still haven’t yet figured out how to clone human beings reliably. Overcoming the so far intractable technical difficulties will take many billions of dollars—both to pay for the research and to draw talented young scientists into the field. With any significant profits to be derived from human cloning probably decades away, it is unlikely that the private sector will provide the level of resources that will be necessary to develop and industrialize the sector. Thus, if human cloning is ever to be perfected, it will almost surely require significant federal support.
But what about the ban on funding experiments on gestating clones? Surely that’s worth doing.
Not really. Such experiments are currently beyond our technological prowess, so all the bill would do is ban funding of experiments that cannot yet be done. Besides, once the science caught up with the ban, it could simply be rescinded—just as HR 4808 would destroy existing federal prohibitions against funding basic human cloning research. And what better time to spring the trap than when the issue is out of the news and nobody is paying attention.
CBC special consultant Wesley J. Smith is a Senior Fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics at the Discovery Institute.