Bring on the Clones

by Brian Nick | 6/27/01 5:00am

On Feb. 23, 1997, Scottish embryologist Dr. Ian Wilmut announced that he had successfully cloned a sheep from a single cell of an adult sheep, and the debate over the merits and ethics of human cloning shifted into high gear. In addition to Dolly, the cloned sheep, scientists have managed to clone monkeys, mice and some breeds of cattle. The question of whether modern science has the capability to clone humans has been settled. The only question left is whether it should. A fringe group of scientists, calling themselves the Raelians, have announced that they are currently attempting to "recreate a dead child" at their secret lab located somewhere in Canada. The Raelians are weird -- in addition to their efforts on human cloning, they are also planning to welcome the first aliens to earth when they arrive -- but scientifically sophisticated enough to make good on their promise.

Human cloning for reproduction is not controversial because, with the exception of the Raelians, everyone is against it. The controversy has to do with the cloning of human embryos or "therapeutic cloning," part of a process that allows scientists to create stem cells, which can be developed into virtually any type of cell in the human body. Patients' groups, scientists and biotechnology companies are all very interested in keeping stem cell research legal and they have results to point to for justification of their opposition to a broad ban on cloning. Stem cell research could potentially lead to the end of degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer's disease, as well as the production of healthy bone marrow cells to treat cancer and pancreatic cells to treat diabetes.

To put a ban on this type of research, many argue, would erase any possibility that these wonderful breakthroughs could eventually help a human being with a debilitating disease. Rudolf Jaenisch, a leading scientist with the American Society for Cell Biology, recently testified before the Senate stressing that outlawing this technique would be premature and irresponsible.

Many say a ban on all forms of human embryo cloning would be a blow against Roe v. Wade because it would acknowledge that embryos, even in their early stages, have some intrinsic value. Their value is more utilitarian than spiritual, however, because they could help adult humans cope with serious illnesses. The anti-abortion activists, trying to be consistent, see a cloned human embryo the same way they see a fetus and therefore oppose its being deprived of life simply so its cells can be harvested.

Public opinion on the cloning issue is still forming. Keep in mind that it was only four years ago that the very idea of cloning jumped out of the fantasy of science fiction. Ninety percent of respondents to a Feb. 2001 Time/CNN poll felt it was a "bad" idea to clone human being. But while a majority was against cloning for any reason, cloning for the purpose of producing vital organs to help others received the most support. However, it is unclear how the public will receive embryonic stem cell research once the procedure becomes better known.

As has often been the case lately, President Bush finds himself in a difficult situation. On this issue, conservative pro-lifers will clash with the party's bedrock -- big business, namely the pharmaceutical industry. No matter what he does, he will lose some support, so he might as well do the right thing. If he comes out against stem cell research, he can be painted as a right-wing extremist, in line with the Christian fundamentalist wing of the party (not a popular place to be), but if he supports the research he will risk losing invaluable support from that same right wing. The president hinted during the 2000 campaign that he would support legislation banning embryonic stem cell research, but he has stated more recently that he might be open to allowing unused embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures to be used for stem cell research. This idea has been endorsed by many in Congress, including traditionally pro-life Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

It is ludicrous for anyone to oppose stem cell research using embryos that would otherwise remain stored in a laboratory. If the Republicans support this position, they should be ashamed of themselves. As it is, a handful of pro-life Republicans like Senator Hatch support stem cell research, but in most cases it is because they have a close relative who could potentially benefit from the potential breakthroughs in Parkinson's disease or juvenile diabetes that could come from the procedure. President Bush has the opportunity to lead from the center on this issue, and if he does so he will be able to silence critics (at least temporarily) who claim he is a right wing extremist. If he continues to waste opportunities to support moderate positions, he will assure his party's demise in the 2002 midterm elections, and perhaps his own in 2004.