- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2000

The Vatican Thursday condemned Britain's proposal to clone human embryos, calling it a "gross violation" of human dignity that would murder innocents.

"The decision can only provoke indignation among those who respect the value and the fundamental right to life of a human being," Father Gino Concetti, a moral theologian, wrote in the newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.

"[This] therapy does not conform to any rights or justice and will end up staining innocent blood," said Father Concetti, whose writing is known to reflect the thinking of Pope John Paul II.

Mr. Concetti said it was absurd to consider that one could bring an embryo to life for research purposes and then end its existence shortly afterward as if the life had never existed.

"An embryo is not divisible into two periods, as if it were a game of football," he said. "In the life of a human being, any division between 'before' and 'after' is artificial and manipulative."

In a report Wednesday, the British government endorsed changing its cloning laws to permit so-called "therapeutic cloning," allowing the creation of an embryo in order to harvest its cells for a later medical purpose.

The change would not affect the law that makes it a crime to clone for the purpose of creating a live-birth baby.

The Catholic Church opposes tampering with embryos, arguing that biology shows that life begins at conception.

"Science has shown over a long period of time that any new life exists as part of an indivisible continuum: A human being before two weeks of age is still a human being after two weeks have passed and remains a human being until his natural death," the theologian said.

Locally, Catholics and other pro-life groups also denounced the plan to permit the cloning of human embryos for use in medical research.

"Cloning is against Catholic teachings. The idea of creating a person with the intent to kill that person is truly frightening," said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Chuck Donovan, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Family Research Council, yesterday called the British move a "premature step in the wrong direction."

"It runs an absolutely certain risk of compromising innocent human life," he said.

Both proponents and opponents of the proposed amendments to the British cloning laws acknowledge that the pro-life movement would make creating human embryos for use in medical research in this country difficult if not impossible.

It is "not an option in this country," said Jim Leshan, director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology.

Dr. John Gearhart, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, agrees.

"U.S. pro-lifers are not even willing to accept the situation as it exists here now," Dr. Gearhart said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Unwanted embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization and donated by the parents are now used as a source for primitive stem cells that can develop into any of the more than 210 cells that make up the human body.

Scientists say laboratories in the United States and abroad have shown some encouraging results over the past two years after using stem cells found in fully developed adult cells, rather than embryos, to generate various tissues to try to treat diseases.

Dr. Gearhart agreed this approach would sidestep the ethical issues about the use of embryonic stem cells and fetal tissue, yet another source.

"But this field is so new, we don't know what will work," he said. "Embryonic stem cells have been in use for 17 years. We know they work."

Dr. Gearhart said stem cells now are available from two sources: fetal tissue and embryonic cells. Research using embryos is not eligible for federal money, although such funds are available for fetal-tissue research.

"Fetal stem cells may be equal to embryonic stem cells, but they are molecularly different … at this point, we just don't know," Mr. Leshan said in an interview.

Research has demonstrated that adult stem cells hiding in areas of the body such as the bone marrow have the potential to turn into blood, brain cells, liver, muscles and cartilage.

Some have reported growing bone and fat tissues, starting with just one cell from an adult volunteer's bone marrow and adding growth hormone and nutrients.

Unlike embryonic stem cells, the adult versions can regenerate into only a few different tissue types. Also, they are harder to find than the embryonic stem cells.

Both Dr. Gearhart and Mr. Leshan are excited about the prospects of the adult stem cells, although they said research should proceed on all fronts.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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