LAST WEEK the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) made headlines when it issued a broadside that would, if followed by Congress, grant an open-ended license for biotech researchers to clone human life. True, the NAS recommended that Congress ban “reproductive” cloning, that is, the use of a cloned embryo to produce a born baby. But it also urged that human cloning for purposes of experimentation — often called “therapeutic” or “research” cloning — remain unimpeded by legal restrictions. Such a public policy would permit virtually unlimited human cloning — so long as all the embryos created thereby were destroyed rather than implanted in a woman’s womb.
The recommendation from a well-known scientific organization did not appear at this particular time by coincidence. The Senate will soon consider S. 790, legislation authored by Sam Brownback (R-KS) that would prohibit any creation of human clones — whether for research purposes or for reproduction. The House passed a virtually identical ban in a bipartisan vote last summer, and President Bush strongly supports the bill. Thus the legal future of human cloning — and the potential fortunes to be made by Big Biotech in the United States — hang in the balance in the Brownback bill.
Limiting the ban on human cloning to procedures designed to lead to the birth of a baby would accomplish next to nothing. Figuring out how to clone human life successfully is going to be very difficult. Thus, early research would likely focus on perfecting techniques. Should this be successful, researchers would next attempt to maintain the resulting embryonic clone for a week to two weeks — long enough to harvest their stem cells. (A few weeks ago, the biotech company Advanced Cell Technology announced it has created human clones and maintained them to the six-cell stage, which is not long enough for stem cells to appear.) Should the stem-cell Rubicon be crossed, implantation of the embryonic clone would then be relatively easy. Hence, the next natural (dare I use the word?) step would be the manufacture of human clones not just for research or genetic manipulation but for implantation, gestation, and birth. In any case, the morally serious question is whether human cloning is permissible — not when those cloned should be killed once created.
Much as an original oil painting can be seen only dimly beneath its patina, an agenda to eventually permit unrestricted cloning for all purposes can be discerned between the lines in the NAS report. The NAS panel appears to view human cloning as merely another “reproductive technology.” Indeed, the primary reasons cited by the NAS for finding that reproductive cloning “is not now appropriate” are strictly utilitarian: It simply isn’t safe at this time.
Moreover, given the NAS’s enthusiastic support for unlimited human cloning for purposes of experimentation, its stated opposition to reproductive cloning could easily evaporate. Indeed, the NAS panel urged that any legal ban placed on reproductive cloning be revisited in five years to determine whether the science has advanced sufficiently to permit reproductive cloning experiments to proceed safely. Not only that, but the report implicitly envisions a future when experiments in reproductive cloning could be financed with taxpayers’ money: It recommends that ethical rules governing the use of human subjects in medical experiments apply to “both public and private sector research” into reproductive cloning.
The NAS report appears at a time when most opinion polls show that the American people have a very negative view of attempts to clone human life, regardless of whether it is undertaken for reproductive or research purposes. To overcome public opposition to human cloning, the NAS recommends a truly postmodern solution: Simply call it something else. Thus, the panel suggests dumping the term “therapeutic cloning” — already a euphemism for the creation and destruction of human life — and renaming it “nuclear cell transplantation to produce stem cells,” a mind-numbing phrase designed to obfuscate the nature of the experiments. Moreover, it is utterly disingenuous to call reproductive cloning “cloning” while at the same time claiming that research cloning isn’t cloning. The cloning technique to which the Brownback bill would apply — somatic nuclear cell transplant — is the same whether performed for reproductive or research purposes. As an editorial in the Economist put it concisely on March 1 of last year: “Therapeutic cloning is essentially the same as reproductive cloning, but without the final step of implantation in a woman’s uterus.”
Human nuclear cell transfer cloning is accomplished by extracting the nucleus of an ovum and replacing it with the DNA from a somatic cell of the human being to be cloned. The genetically modified egg is then stimulated to begin embryonic growth and development. At that point — let’s call it the point of “inception” — the act of cloning is complete and a new human embryo exists, possessing its own genetic makeup and gender. Moreover, the cloned embryo is as much a human life as an embryo created through fertilization, and is identical in its organizational structure to its natural counterpart at the same stage of development.
This being so, labeling cloning undertaken for reproduction purposes “cloning” but calling the same procedure undertaken for research “nuclear cell transplantation to produce stem cells” is just a propaganda ploy aimed at affecting the opinion polls. It is akin to taking a stinkbug, pasting yellow wings on it, and calling it a butterfly: It is still a stinkbug. Political advocacy isn’t magically transformed into “science” merely because it is issued by a group of scientists.
The cloning debate is morally difficult and scientifically complex. Much is at stake, not the least our view of the inherent value of human life. The American people deserve candor and scientific accuracy as to the potential benefits and the real harms that could arise from permitting human cloning, whether for research or reproductive purposes. The NAS has instead issued a naked piece of political advocacy masked as dispassionate science.