News that a South Korean researcher created 30 cloned human embryos has stoked the hype machine once again. Perhaps a decade from now, the story line goes, tissues taken from human clones made from patients with serious illnesses can be used in miracle treatments for such diseases as Alzheimer’s, diabetes or Parkinson’s.
More likely a pipe dream. Many scientists now acknowledge that even if “therapeutic cloning” can be perfected—a huge “if,” despite the South Korean success—it would probably be too impractical and expensive to ever become widely available. A September 2003 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, reported that it would cost up to $200,000 per patient just to pay for the human eggs needed to derive one usable stem-cell line suitable for a “therapeutic cloning” treatment. Indeed, the potentially high cost of, and intense controversy over, therapeutic cloning have made venture capitalists reluctant to invest in human cloning biotech.
But pro-cloners have a backup plan. They want taxpayers to pay for the research.
The first step—changing the terminology of the cloning debate—has already succeeded. Knowing that polls show most Americans oppose human cloning whether for reproduction or for experiments, boosters have convinced the media to replace their original term “therapeutic cloning” with the bland “somatic cell nuclear transfer for stem cells.” But in a clever move, they still use “cloning” when the identical procedure is used for reproductive purposes, so they can say they are against “human cloning.”
The point of this brazen obfuscation is to create a false distinction between cloning intended to result in the birth of a baby and the same act conducted to create nascent human life for use in medical research. But once the human embryo is created, there are no further acts of cloning—just decisions about what to do next. Thus, much of the same cloning research pursued for medical purposes could also materially aid in bringing a cloned baby into the world.
The next step toward the public till is to have friendly politicians legally redefine the renamed therapeutic cloning to be merely a form of stem-cell research. A bill introduced by Senators Orrin Hatch and Dianne Feinstein would accomplish that. It would forbid harvesting of the cloned human embryos after 14 days of development. But that is merely an arbitrary line designed to assuage concerns.
This strategy is also being pursued at the state level. Cloning-legalization bills are wending their way through the legislatures of Illinois, Delaware and Washington. California and New Jersey have already legalized human cloning for biomedical research. Indeed, New Jersey’s law, signed on Jan. 4, is so radical that it essentially makes it legal to implant cloned embryos into wombs and gestate them through the ninth month.
Energized by these successes, cloning entrepreneurs and researchers are now on the hunt for public funds to finance their work. Professional signature gatherers, for instance, are circulating petitions to qualify the “California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act” for this November’s ballot.
The measure would amend California’s constitution to require that stem-cell researchers, including those experimenting on human embryos “derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer,” receive “an average of $295 million per year in bonds over a ten-year period.” Californians would have to go deeply into debt to fund biotechnology research even though the nearly bankrupt state can’t adequately fund its schools or highways.
The national drive by the biotechnology industry to fill its nearly empty pockets with public funds for human cloning research is an audacious money grab. So far the effort has progressed by remaining beneath the radar of public scrutiny. But taxpayers should not have to pay for intensely controversial research that much of the private sector rightly sees as a dry well. You don’t even have to have moral qualms about cloning to oppose this juggernaut. Maybe you just don’t want your pocket picked.