Debate needs dose of reality, morality

William Keeler
February 24, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

People in our time are understandably dazzled by advances in science and technology. But this makes it all the more important to step back at times and ask whether the latest "advance" isn't really a step backward for humanity.

The news that South Korean scientists have cloned human embryos, and created a stem cell line from one of them, has revived exaggerated hopes about human cloning as a "therapeutic" technique. A dose of realism is in order.

Research in mouse embryonic stem cells is a quarter of a century old and has not produced safe and effective treatments for major illnesses in mice. Stem cells from human embryos have been studied for five years and are nowhere near human clinical trials for several reasons, including their tendency to form tumors when placed in animals.

Stem cells from cloned embryos are expected to pose additional risks and problems of their own. Some countries, such as Australia, have banned human cloning for research purposes after their top stem cell scientists concluded that it is unnecessary for progress in cell therapies.

What about the other side of the ledger, the moral and human cost of this "advance"?

Sixteen women were given potentially dangerous fertility drugs to force their ovaries to produce about 15 eggs at a time instead of one. These eggs were subjected to the cloning procedure used to make Dolly the sheep, creating 213 cloned embryos at the two-celled stage. Thirty survived to the one-week-old blastocyst stage, and the inner cells were successfully harvested from 20, but only one embryonic stem cell line was created. That's 16 women treated as mere egg factories and over 200 developing human lives created and discarded, to make one cell line that will probably never be used to treat anyone.

The process may become more efficient in the future but will always require exploiting women for their eggs and creating and destroying many human embryos to treat each patient -- if it provides treatments at all.

Some will disagree with my conviction that a human embryo should be treated as having the same fundamental right to life as any human person. But most of us should agree that we are dealing here with no mere clump of cells. The week-old embryo is simply the being that each of us once was. Boards of experts advising presidents of both major political parties have concluded that this embryo is a developing form of human life that deserves respect. To manufacture these developing lives in the laboratory solely to destroy them for their cells is the opposite of respect.

Note also that such research inevitably facilitates what almost everyone opposes: the production of cloned children. Whatever the researchers' original purpose, posting their study on the Internet provides a "how-to" manual for anyone who wants to pursue human cloning for reproduction, including the UFO cult members who say they were told by aliens to reproduce in no other way.

A national ban on human cloning for any purpose has been approved twice by the House of Representatives and endorsed by President Bush. It deserves approval by the Senate now. Passage of such a ban would not disrupt medical progress.

The best-kept secret in this debate is that stem cells from adult cells and umbilical cord blood are already alleviating suffering and disease in patients with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, sickle-cell anemia, spinal cord injury and other conditions. A human science worthy of the name will allow hype to be tempered by realism and allow technology to be guided by moral norms to produce therapies we can all live with.