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Small step, big fuss


Last week’s announcement that scientists at a small biotechnology company in Massachusetts had cloned human embryos seemed to bring Brave New World one step closer to reality. The Nov. 25 announcement by Advanced Cell Technology, a privately funded company in Worcester, Mass., ignited a storm of protest. The Vatican condemned the experiments unequivocally, as did President George W. Bush and numerous religious and political leaders at home and abroad.

“We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it,” Bush said, who called on lawmakers to enact a ban on cloning human embryos.

Many bioethicists, including some Catholics, are not in favor of a ban on all human cloning research, but express concern that scientific research is outpacing public discussion of it.

Advanced Cell Technology was not attempting to create human beings. Rather, the company was seeking to produce embryos from which stem cells can be derived for the purpose of treating disease. Its research is controversial because it involves creating embryos in order to destroy them.

Nonetheless, many scientists and doctors say that therapeutic cloning holds tremendous potential for treating diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and many others. Theoretically, the stem cells produced by therapeutic cloning could grow into almost any cell type and serve as replacement tissue that would be an exact genetic match for a patient, who would then not require anti-rejection drugs.

Opponents of therapeutic cloning argue that in addition to the immorality of discarding human embryos, the technique will pave the way for reproductive cloning -- the creation of a new human being.

From the point of view of many scientists, Advanced Cell Technology’s claim to success was premature at best. The company was able to produce human embryos that lived for only a few hours and that grew to six cells in size. Embryos of about 100 or more cells are needed to harvest stem cells.

“Why the big fuss?” said Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch of the experiments by Advanced Cell Technology published in the online publication, E-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine. A professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who works with mouse embryonic stem cells, Jaenisch called the company’s claim of success “ludicrous.”

“From the scientific point of view, I think it’s very underwhelming,” Jaenisch said. “They couldn’t get these embryos to divide more than once or twice. It’s basically a failed experiment.”

Indeed, both the promise and the peril of the experiments Advanced Cell Technology conducted may be exaggerated by the company and its critics alike. Still, the outcry over the company’s research indicates how sensitive an issue cloning is, both in this country and abroad.

A nightmare reality

In Germany Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn said Advanced Cell Technology’s announcement showed the need for a worldwide ban on human cloning while Joerg-Dietrich Hoppe, the president of the major physicians association there, termed the U.S. research “a nightmare that has now unfortunately become reality.” In Brussels, a senior European Union official called for an urgent debate on the ethics of human cloning. “Not everything scientifically possible and technologically feasible is necessarily desirable,” said Philippe Busquin, the European research commissioner, in a statement.

In Rome, Msgr. Tarcisio Bertone, a senior Vatican official, said the Catholic church was “launching an alarm” on cloning. “Therapeutic aims are excellent, they are praiseworthy. However, it is the means used that raise the questions, ” Bertone told Italian state television. If it involves “production and destruction of human beings to treat other human beings, the end doesn’t justify the means.”

In this country, within hours of Bush’s denouncing the research by Advanced Cell Technology, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said he would press for passage by Christmas of a bill prohibiting human cloning for either reproductive or therapeutic purposes. A similar bill has already been passed in the House of Representatives. If the Senate does not quickly pass the bill, Brownback said he would propose a six-month moratorium on cloning research.

“Human cloning is a neuralgic issue -- whether it’s issues of 1984 or issues of Frankenstein. There’s clearly an extraordinary reaction that comes from people when this topic is brought up,” said Jesuit Fr. Kevin Wilde, a bioethicist at Georgetown University, who said the study by Advanced Cell Technology reflects one more step in a line of development where medicine is heading.”

Le Roy Walters, a philosopher at Georgetown whom the president consulted before making his decision on embryonic stem cell lines this past August, described the research by Advanced Cell Technology as “a small step scientifically but a larger step socially and ethically and legally.”

Some bioethicists said that while the furor over Advanced Cell Technology’s announcement will prompt new public attention to cloning, some of the key issues may get lost in the debate.

Wilde said one set of concerns for some people, and especially for the Catholic church, includes regard for early life. Another set of issues turns on broader questions of the relationship between reproduction and sexuality, with the Vatican taking the stance that reproduction cannot be separated from the sexual expression of love without undercutting the morality of the action, whether this involves contraception, in vitro fertilization or cloning. Yet another area of concern is experimentation itself.

“There are a lot of areas where our knowledge base is rather thin,” Wilde said. “That is the opinion of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which said we shouldn’t proceed with human cloning because we don’t know about its long-term effects.”

But for Wilde, what is most troublesome about Advanced Cell Technology’s research is the lack of prior public discussion of it. The federal government monitors research financed with public funds, but privately funded research is unregulated.

“What I’d like to see is good public argument and discussion,” Wilde said of cloning research. “If it’s wrong, what’s wrong with it? If it’s good, what’s good with it? I worry when people make assertions one way or another without discussion.”

Despite enthusiasm for a wholesale ban on human cloning research, particularly among religious groups, Wilde said he doesn’t favor such a ban. “I’m afraid that if you’re not careful, the research will just go elsewhere. I believe one way to protect the ethical quality of such research is to maintain it in a public forum and subject it to public discussion,” he said.

Ronald Cole-Turner agrees that public scrutiny of cloning research is essential. A professor of theology and ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, Cole-Turner serves on the executive committee of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the author of The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution and the editor of Human Cloning: Religious Responses.

On one hand, the difficulty Advanced Cell Technology experienced with its research should set reproductive cloning back and provide further much-needed time for reflection on it, Cole-Turner said. On the other hand, the fact that Advanced Cell Technology succeeded at all is sobering, he said.

“I think this step makes it much more likely that human clones will happen,” Cole-Turner said. “It increases the likelihood that it will be done irresponsibly ... in a race for a patent or a race for a market share.”

The United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian church both took positions last summer favoring stem cell research and, within limits, embryo research. Cole-Turner supports that position and says he doesn’t object to the kind of research Advanced Cell Technology is doing so much as its headlong pursuit of it.

“They crossed a moral threshold,” Cole-Turner said of Advanced Cell Technology’s experiments. “Corporations do not have the right to take humanity across such a threshold.”

Cole-Turner called the company’s decision to proceed with human cloning without any prior public discussion “offensive,” though he added that in Advanced Cell Technology’s defense right now there is no federal advisory process to help private corporations deliberate what they do with embryos.

“The people in Washington seem only concerned with what they’re paying for,” he said.

Cole-Turner suggested the new bioethics council Bush appointed in August to advise the president on embryonic stem cell research should be given federal oversight responsibilities over privately funded research as well as publicly funded research. Currently, he said, the government is simply abdicating its responsibility.

“A company like Advanced Cell Technology should have to come before some entity of the federal government to apply for permission to work on human embryos. It should have to make the case before a federal panel that what it’s doing is legitimate science -- that it uses the fewest possible embryos, that it will tell where the embryos are coming from and what’s done with them at the end of experimentation. Only then would you get a license for experimentation.”

The future of cloning

Had the experiments by Advanced Cell Technology been more successful, they might have advanced the case for therapeutic cloning, said Greg Kaebnick at the Hastings Center, an independent, nonpartisan research institute that examines ethical issues in the area of health, medicine and the environment. As it is, it’s unclear how the announcement by Advanced Cell Technology will influence the public debate of cloning research, said Kaebnick, the editor of the center’s bimonthly Hastings Center Report.

Kaebnick said he’s concerned that a useful distinction between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning may be lost in the clamor over the Nov. 25 report of human cloning. While strongly opposed to reproductive cloning, Kaebnick said therapeutic cloning may have many benefits.

Unfortunately, any ban on human cloning will be much more enforceable on therapeutic cloning than on reproductive cloning, Kaebnick said.

The experiments Advanced Cell Technologies conducted to create human embryos were done in several ways. One method was much like the standard approach to cloning cows and sheep that was used to clone Dolly, the first cloned sheep. Genetic material was removed from an unfertilized egg and in its place an adult cell was inserted. The resulting clone is a genetic copy of the donor of the adult cell, not the donor of the egg. Using this method, Advanced Cell Technology experimented with both skin cells and cumulus cells, which are cells that surround human eggs, and reported better results with cumulus cells. The company paid women $3,000 to $5,000 for their eggs.

The other method Advanced Cell Technology followed was to stimulate an egg to divide without being fertilized. The embryos that result from this process, known as parthenogenesis, cannot develop into babies since they lack the genes from a male that are needed to form a placenta. The scientists at Advanced Cell Technology chemically stimulated 22 human eggs. Most died within a day; six lasted for five days.

“If there’s anything new about this story today, it’s the parthenogenesis part,” said Philip Boyle, a religious ethicist on health care issues at the Park Ridge Center for Health, Faith and Ethics, a nonprofit, nonsectarian institute that examines the intersection of health and religion. Boyle said the parthenogenesis aspect of the experiments presents ethicists some new and unexpected challenges.

“It’s not the same moral problem as the destruction of the human embryo, which is a concern of the Catholic church,” Boyle said. “If we stop at parthenogenesis, would there be anything wrong in getting an unfertilized egg to divide?”

Boyle said Catholic moral theologians might look at the issue from several considerations. First, how was the egg obtained? Is it licit? Is the egg itself a valuable good unfertilized?

In both the debate over embryonic stem cells and, now, cloned human embryos, Boyle said insufficient attention has been paid to possible alternatives. For instance, adult tissue, maternal blood and fetuses that have been miscarried are all possible sources of stem cells.

“If the vast majority of people find something morally repugnant, should researchers be looking for an alternative? They don’t seem so inclined. A lot of the time people who have a lot of vested interests discount moral risks. I think we ought to have some oversight. I’m more and more concerned about unregulated private science,” Boyle said.

Unprepared for ethical questions

Unfortunately, said Boyle, too many religious leaders are unwilling or unprepared to deal with the ethical issues contemporary science raises.

“Someone needs to exert moral leadership -- to talk about what values as a society we’re pursuing,” Boyle said.

Cole-Turner added his own concerns about the perils of unregulated science. “The last thing we want is human embryo research as part of a high school science experiment -- to have embryo research be so trivialized that literally anybody could do it.”

The very limited success made by Advanced Cell Technology in its experiments shows that Brave New World will not arrive tomorrow. Still, some ethicists say human cloning, for reproductive purposes as well as therapeutic purposes, is no longer a far-off possibility but a probability.

“I think eventually there may be some cases of reproductive cloning whether we like it or not,” said Kaebnick. “By banning it, we may be able to keep it down to a minimum. I think there are some people who would desperately love to have a child cloned that they’ve lost and would have the money to do so and could do so if the technology were there.”

Right now, only a few countries in the world permit human cloning research, said Leroy Walters.

“I think there should be not only a national law but an international convention on the question of reproductive cloning that would at least agree on an international moratorium on attempts to create a human child by nuclear transfer,” Walters said.

Such a moratorium would have the backing of the Vatican. On Nov. 19, Archbishop Rafaele Renato Martino, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations, said the Vatican supports a proposed international convention against human cloning.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer.

Related Web sites

Advanced Cell Technology www.advancedcell.com
Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion www.aaas.org/spp/dser
The Hastings Center www.thehastingscenter.org
National Bioethics Advisory Commission bioethics.georgetown.edu/nbac

Ethical concerns about human cloning

Cloning can be done for the purposes of either replicating an individual (reproductive cloning) or growing tissue (therapeutic cloning) for treatment of disease.

Therapeutic cloning:

  • Disregard for early life. Through nuclear transfer of genetic material, human embryos are created that are then destroyed after about five days.
  • Separates reproduction from sexuality.
  • Therapeutic cloning technology could be easily applied to reproductive cloning, which is widely seen as riskier and more questionable.
  • Privately funded cloning is not subject to government regulation.

Reproductive cloning:

  • Separates reproduction from sexuality.
  • Is at odds with values placed on personhood, parent-child relationship, family and nature.
  • Is an unacceptable form of human experimentation.
  • May produce physical harm to children produced through cloning, as most animals created through cloning have been born with abnormalities.
  • May change or weaken the nature of family and the bonds between family members.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001