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Shifting Definition of Cloning

Original Article

Petitions have only begun to be gathered to qualify the Missouri Stem Cell and Cures Initiative for November’s ballot, and already the controversy is white hot.

Proponents contend that their proposal would merely permit embryonic stem cell research using a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, while also banning human cloning. But opponents insist that the process is human cloning and that the initiative would actually create a constitutional right to clone human life.

Which side is right? The answer to this threshold question depends on whether one accepts a scientific definition of cloning or a political one.

Scientifically, there are two ways to create new mammalian (including human) life. The first is the old fashioned “sexual” method where sperm meets egg, resulting in an embryo. The second is “asexual reproduction,” also known as “cloning,” that creates embryos via somatic cell nuclear transfer — the same technique used to make Dolly the sheep.

In human somatic cell nuclear transfer, the nucleus from a human egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus from the DNA donor’s somatic (body) cell. The genetically modified egg now contains the full human complement of 46 chromosomes, so that when stimulated with an electric charge, it transforms into a new human organism — that is, a one-celled human embryo. At that point, the cloning is complete, and the cloned embryo develops through the different stages of gestation just like one created through fertilization.

Proponents of the initiative worry that voters will vote no if they understand that it would establish a constitutional right in Missouri to create cloned human embryos for use in research. So the initiative’s drafters redefined the term “cloning a human being” to mean implanting a cloned embryo in a uterus for the purpose of initiating a pregnancy that could result in birth. But scientifically, implantation is not an act of cloning. Rather, it is one potential use of a cloned embryo that was previously created.

This point was clearly affirmed by James Thomson, the discoverer of human embryonic stem cells and a supporter of what is sometimes called therapeutic cloning. In a recent MSNBC interview, Thomson was asked whether he agreed that somatic cell nuclear transfer “is optimized for making stem cells rather than making babies,” the very assertion frequently made by the initiative’s supporters.

But Thomson stuck with science over politics, stating: “See, you are trying to redefine it away. … If you create an embryo by nuclear transfer, if you gave it to somebody who didn’t know where it came from, there would be no test you could do on that embryo to say where it came from. It is what it is. … By any reasonable definition, at least as some frequency, you are creating an embryo. If you try to redefine it away, you are being disingenuous.”

Whether to permit human cloning is one of the most important moral questions facing humanity. People of good will can come to different conclusions. But human somatic cell nuclear transfer is human cloning, and basic respect for Missouri’s voters requires acknowledging that fundamental point.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and author of “Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World.” He lives in Castro Valley, Calif.