- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

I remember, as a boy, being disconcerted when I learned that the Earth was not standing still, but spinning around on its axis as it swirled around the Sun. If that were the case, why did everything look perfectly still on a foggy, windless morning? Reality, it turned out, was not obviously discovered by applying logic to my sense perceptions.

Well, as I have started to think about stem cell research, genetic engineering and cloning, I once again find that reality and logic don't easily coincide. It is a matter of life and death, but I can't even figure out when life starts or when death starts. Consider the central argument of the president's recent stem cell decision. Like millions of Americans, President Bush didn't want to kill a human life, so he only permitted research on already killed embryonic stem cells. But are they dead?

Princeton molecular biology Professor Lee Silver, writing recently in The Washington Post, explained that when the egg and the sperm fuse to form the embryonic cells, only the inside cells will become the fetus. The outside cells will become the placenta. Researchers go for the inside cells and discard the outside cells. Thus, we supposed, what was left could not grow into a fetus, lacked the potential for life and could therefore be used for research if it had already been "killed."

But a researcher in Canada has been taking just such placenta cell-stripped embryonic stem cells from mice and then giving them new placental cells, which happily grow into healthy little mice. If it can be done with mice embryos, it may well be replicable with human ones. If that is the case, those existing embryonic human stem cells may still have potential human life within them, even after they become stem cell lines. There may be no ethical difference between already existing stem cell lines and the hundreds of thousands of frozen fertilized eggs. If we can use them without killing them, where is the ethical violation?

Or consider the question of genetically engineering new and improved designer babies. While most people find that morally repugnant, most people do not oppose repairing genetically damaged fetuses. But what is the difference between repairing genetic damage and designing genetic improvement? For example, scientists have discovered a powerful correlation between people with high IQs and people with symmetrical features. We all have one foot or ear slightly larger than the other. That is asymmetry. Those with less asymmetry tend to be smarter. The magnitude of the asymmetry is a good measure of how resistant to stress the body was when developing stress from infections, toxins or poor nutrition. Such resistance is probably genetic. If doctors were to repair those fetuses who had insufficient resistance to stress ( a repair job), they may also be increasing the child's intelligence (an improvement job). It gets tricky discerning the ethical differences.

If it were announced that a mad scientist was taking genetic cells from two different women and combining them with the sperm from a man to form a hybrid human who was genetically three people, Congress would be holding loud and angry hearings. But for the last four or five years Dr. Jacques Cohen at New Jersey's St. Barnabus Medical Center has been doing just that, and as a result about 30 healthy, normal children are walking the Earth at this moment.

He was helping women who can conceive, but whose embryos disintegrate. By taking the cytoplasm that surrounds the nucleus of eggs from a healthy woman and adding it to the mother's egg and the father's sperm, he is creating healthy babies who share two sets of maternal mitochondria (and thus three sets of genetic material). Is this good or evil?

A few weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill making it a crime to clone a human (the Senate has not yet acted). Most people find human cloning repugnant. But four out of every 1,000 people are already clones: That is, they are identical twins. In fact, identical twins are genetically and environmentally closer than human-made clones would be. Unlike identical twins, human-made clones would have different mitochondria from eggs, they would have a different pre-natal environment (a different host-womb), they would have different post-birth environments and they would live in different historical periods.

Yet most people have known identical twins and recognize them as distinct individuals. Why would a human-made clone be an inhuman monster? After all, genetics isn't everything. While the genes form the brain and the brain gives rise to the mind, the mind is a dynamic thing that acts and reacts uniquely to its ever-changing environment. The unique human personality results from a combination of its genetics, the unique activities of its mind and its environment. That's why identical twins are not identical personalities. Where is the bright, logical line?

The U.S. Patent Office is currently puzzling over this question. They are concerned that a patent application by Geron Corp. for medical uses of human cloning technology may violate the 13th Amendment prohibition against slavery. The Patent Office isn't alone. We are all going to be struggling to discern between the ambiguities of an increasingly elusive reality.

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