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When Is Cloning not “Cloning”?

When John Kerry proposes a ban on it. Original Article

John Kerry has a well-deserved reputation for waffling and attempting to get on every side of every issue. Now, he’s done it again by signing up as a co-sponsor (along with Senators Orin Hatch and Dianne Feinstein) of what could be called the Human Cloning Legalization and Legitimization Act of 2003 (S. 303).

The legislation isn’t really called that. Such a title would be too honest, too candid. Its given name is the “Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2003,” the stated purpose of which, supposedly, is to “prohibit human cloning and to protect important areas of medical research, including stem cell research.”

But, S. 303 does not outlaw the act of human cloning at all. Indeed, if passed, Hatch/Feinstein/Kerry would explicitly legalize doing in humans the very cloning procedure—somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)—that was used to make Dolly the sheep.

SCNT is the primary method for cloning mammalian life. In a nutshell, here’s how it is accomplished:

  • First, the cloner removes the nucleus from an egg;
  • He or she then removes the nucleus from a somatic cell, say a skin cell, from the DNA donor (whether a sheep, cow, mouse, or human);
  • The somatic cell nucleus is next placed in the enucleated egg;
  • The genetically modified egg (which now has a full set of chromosomes of the mammal being cloned rather than the egg’s usual one-half) would be subjected to an electric current;
  • If the cloning “works,” an embryo of the mammal being cloned comes into being “asexually” and begins embryonic division in essentially the same manner as a natural embryo. If implanted and gestated, and all goes well, it will result in the birth of a cloned piglet, lamb, or baby, as the case may be.

When undertaken with human biological materials, as the President’s Council on Bioethics agreed unanimously, SCNT is properly called “human cloning” because the nascent life created thereby would not be a Martian or a sheep, but rather, a fully human embryo.

Once the SCNT procedure is completed, there are no further acts of cloning. All that remains is determining what to do with the resulting cloned embryo. If it is to be used in research, it is generally called therapeutic cloning. If it is to be implanted and gestated to birth, it is generally called reproductive cloning. Whichever the case, the actual act of SCNT is identical. In other words, cloning is cloning is cloning: There isn’t one procedure if you want to conduct research on the embryo and a different approach if you want to bring a cloned baby to birth.

So, how do Senators Hatch/Feinstein/Kerry get off calling their legislation a “cloning ban”? They simply redefine the term “cloning” to give it a political meaning instead of a biologically accurate one. S. 303 defines the term “human cloning” to mean, “implanting or attempting to implant the product of nuclear transplantation [e.g., the cloned embryo] into a uterus or functional equivalent of a uterus.” Presto-change-o: Cloning isn’t SCNT anymore; it is now the act of implantation.

At the same time, the legislation explicitly permits maintenance and development of the “product of somatic cell nuclear transplantation,” which is renamed “an unfertilized blastocyst,” for “no more than 14 days from its first cell division.” Thus, rather than banning human cloning, the measure explicitly legalizes it, but pretends not to.

Perhaps, we shouldn’t be surprised that the junior senator from Massachusetts prefers a phony human cloning ban to the real one proposed by Senators Sam Brownback and Mary Landrieu (S. 245) that would outlaw all human SCNT. After all, by supporting S. 303 and opposing S. 245, Kerry can tell the American people that he voted for a human cloning ban—before he voted against it.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His next book, Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World, will be published in the fall.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.