TCS Daily


A Cloning Moratorium? No

By Ronald Bailey - June 20, 2002 12:00 AM

The National Academy of Sciences estimates that as many as 100 million Americans could one day benefit from stem cell medical therapies. Stem cells are the primordial cells from which all the types of other cells in the body develop. The most promising stem cell therapy is somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) (also called therapeutic cloning) the aim of which is to produce perfect organ and tissue transplants for patients. Currently, research involves taking the genetic material (DNA) from a patient and inserting it into a human egg whose own genetic material has been removed. Factors in the egg reprogram the patient's DNA to produce stem cells that researchers plan to coax into becoming perfect transplantable cells and tissues to repair the damage caused by heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, and Alzheimer's disease. Eventually, SCNT research will uncover the reprogramming factors in eggs and thus enable researchers to reprogram cells directly.

Right-to-lifer Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) has been trying for more than two years to persuade his colleagues in the Senate to ban this research. His most recent effort is a bill co-sponsored by Mary Landrieu (D-LA) that would criminalize medical research on both therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Brownback's original bill would send medical researchers to jail for ten years and fine them $1 million and it would forbid Americans from using any medicines or therapies produced in other countries based on cloning research. Brownback has been jockeying for a vote on his bill for months, but negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) broke down last week and it appears that there will be no debate on Brownback's original bill this session.

Why is Brownback so eager to ban this promising research? Because he mistakenly believes that the blastocysts it produces are people. They are not. The blastocysts produced by SCNT develop for about 8 days in a petri dish and consist of 150 cells or so and whose stem cells have not differentiated in any way. The presence of human genes in cells is certainly necessary to being human, but not sufficient. After all, nearly every cell in our bodies contains our complete genetic recipe.

But what makes us human are our brains from which our hopes, our plans, our moral choices and our consciousnesses arise. Blastocysts do not have nerve cells much less brains. Also ponder the fact that perhaps half of all blastocysts produced via conventional conception fail to implant in a womb and we do not consider them to be children to be either medically rescued or mourned.

Brownback also fears that unscrupulous researchers will implant blastocysts in a woman's womb with the goal of producing a cloned baby. It would certainly be immoral to attempt to do that since research on cloned animals indicates any child born through cloning would now likely be severely deformed. In response to this concern Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator Arlen Spector (R-PA) are offering an alternative to Brownback's bill that would permit therapeutic cloning and outlaw reproductive cloning. However, it is possible that research will eventually make reproductive cloning medically safe, in which case, the ethical argument against it falls apart. But that is a discussion for another time.

Now Brownback, frustrated by Daschle's maneuvering, is asking for a 2-year moratorium on SCNT research instead. A moratorium would be as bad as a ban. First, a moratorium means that millions of patients who perhaps can benefit from SCNT therapies, victims of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease and many other degenerative illnesses, will suffer more and many will die because of the delay produced by a moratorium.

Second, a moratorium will chill research. What scientist or physician is going to devote his time and intellectual resources to a line of research for which he could be jailed later? Already one American researcher, Roger Pedersen, has moved his stem cell research laboratory from the University of California in San Francisco to Britain where stem cell research is legal.

Finally, a 2-year moratorium is transparently a tactical maneuver, by which Brownback wants to get through the next election cycle in the hope that the Republicans, who he believes are more likely to oppose embryonic stem cell research, will regain control of the Senate.

Some people may be fooled by the rhetoric employed by SCNT opponents that a 2-year moratorium will give "society" time to catch up and consider the ethical implications embryonic stem cell research. It is not at all clear that democracy is the way to decide on the proper course of scientific research. In a free society, people, including researchers, get to pursue their interests even if their fellow citizens don't approve of what they are doing. Of course, human beings have intrinsic value, so no one is allowed to kill or harm other people, but blastocysts in a petri dish are not people.

Keep in mind that a majority of people would have voted against organ transplants or test-tube babies when those medical techniques were first developed. Now, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization are regular medical therapies that are widely applauded by the public. In a decade or so, the transplant therapies based on SCNT, which Brownback is now trying to criminalize, will similarly be accepted and cheered by the public.

Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine's science correspondent, can be reached at rbailey@reason.com.
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