- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

The cloning conundrum comes down to a moment a split second that separates non-life from life, critical experimentation from cruel exploitation. Yet, given the consequences of choosing wrongly, Congress should take its time to consider the ethical and social implications among the continuum of reproductive cloning, therapeutic cloning and adult stem cell research.

At the outset, the terminology and technology must be separated, since therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning start at the same point, but end at rather different ones, with wildly different consequences for the individuals involved. Meanwhile, therapeutic cloning and adult stem cell research start with somewhat different materials, but use similar end products for essentially the same purposes.

Both reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning begin at the embryonic stage of life with a blastocyst, a 3-to-6-day-old fusion of a sperm and egg which contains between 100 and 200 cells, including many stem cells. (The initial union of a sperm and egg is called a zygote. After 3 to 4 divisions, it is termed a morula, and after that, a blastocyst.) Upon implantation into a mother's womb, the blastocyst may develop into a baby.

Fertilization and implantation may be done in a few different ways: Coitus, artificial insemination or somatic cell nuclear transfer. In the last technique, used for cloning animals (and if you still believe the Raelians, humans), the full set of DNA from a somatic cell (a non-reproductive cell such as a skin cell) is implanted into an egg cell whose DNA has been removed. That zygote then develops into a blastocyst.

It is at the blastocyst stage that therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning take different paths. In therapeutic cloning, no implantation is done the stem cells are extracted for research purposes, and the rest is discarded. In reproductive cloning, the blastocyst is implanted into a womb, which, if all goes well, becomes a baby.

Unfortunately, reproductive cloning does not usually go well. It took researchers 377 tries to create Dolly, the first animal clone, and low success rates for animal cloning remain the norm. Moreover, the birth of a living clone does not necessarily indicate a healthy clone according to author Matt Ridley, about 30 percent of cloned domestic animals have terrible organ deformities. With current technology, cloning a human being, at best, makes that individual a permanent experiment which could go terribly awry at any point. No wonder reproductive cloning has been almost universally condemned.

However, therapeutic cloning may turn out rather better the stem cells extracted could give life to millions by being used to regrow diseased organs and overcome the difficulties of tissue rejection. That's also the hope of adult stem cell research, which has successfully been used in almost 50 trials involving humans.

Because of where they are derived from namely, consenting adults the use of adult stem cells raises few ethical eyebrows. Neither of the bills currently under congressional consideration propose to ban their use, and those backing bans on therapeutic cloning are enthusiastic supporters of the other. It's difficult to quibble with either of the parties' hope to add quality to life, but at what cost?

So the debate comes back to the question: Where and how does life begin?

Some believe that life begins at the moment of conception, including Rep. Dave Weldon, Ken Connor, President of the Family Research Council and Robert P. George, a lawyer, scholar and member of the President's Council on Bioethics. In an addendum to the report on cloning issued by the that council last July, Mr. George, joined by Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, wrote, "A human embryo is a whole living member of the species homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural development," adding later, "Embryonic human beings, no less than human beings at other developmental stages, should be treated as subjects of moral respect and human rights, not as objects that may be damaged or destroyed for the benefit of others."

A slightly different opinion was expressed by Dr. Leon Kass, Chairman of the bioethics council, in his book Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity. While he agreed that "the zygote and early embryonic stages are clearly alive," he suggested, "a blastocyst is not, in a full sense (italics in original), a human being." He went on to argue, "the most sensible policy is to treat the early embryo as a pre-viable fetus, with constraints imposed on early embryo research at least as great as those on fetal research." (italics in the original).

For others, including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, life begins further along in development. Mr. Hatch argues that life begins when a blastocyst is implanted into a mother's womb. According to Jewish tradition, it begins about 40 days into the pregnancy. For them, and others with a similar viewpoint (including much of the scientific community), there are few ethical difficulties with embryonic stem cell research. In fact, given the humanitarian benefits that could come from such research, they see banning such research as morally irresponsible.

The differing philosophies are reflected in the bills under consideration in Congress. The bill that Dr. Weldon and Rep. Bart Stupak recently introduced, HR 234, the "Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003," defines human cloning as the act of somatic nuclear transfer. In contrast, the bill offered last year by Sens. Arlen Specter, Dianne Feinstein, Hatch, Edward Kennedy and others (S. 2439) defined human cloning in terms of implantation. While it's expected that those senators will offer a similar bill this year, the details are not yet clear.

Though it seems likely that H.R. 234 will pass (a similar bill passed last year by a wide margin), it's not yet certain how the Senate will act. Regardless of where Congress decides to stop along the cloning continuum, the cloning conundrum is not likely to go away any time soon. And, as the technology advances and is applied by scientists and corporations in Europe and Asia, the ethical principles of therapeutic cloning opponents will be put to the stiffest tests of pragmatism.


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