The use of cloning to produce “Dolly” the sheep has prompted a public debate about cloning humans. This issue has quickly become linked with the issues of abortion and embryo research.
What is cloning?
Cloning is a way of producing a genetic twin of an organism, without sexual reproduction. The method used to produce Dolly the sheep is called “somatic cell nuclear transfer”: the nucleus of a body cell (“somatic cell”) is transferred into an unfertilized egg whose nucleus has been removed or rendered inactive. A tiny electric pulse may then stimulate development of the resulting embryo, which is an almost exact genetic twin of the creature that supplied the nucleus. It may be technically possible to use this procedure to reproduce human beings.
What does cloning have to do with embryo research?
A great deal. Cloning a human being or other large organism begins by artificially producing an embryo of that species. To produce one live sheep, “Dolly,” scientists created 277 sheep embryos; 276 died or were discarded. Experiments in human cloning would involve the creation and destruction of human embryos on a massive scale.
Didn’t the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) propose a ban on cloning?
Not really. It proposed a five-year moratorium on use of cloning to produce a “child,” meaning a live-born child. This would allow unlimited cloning to produce human embryos, so long as the embryos were then destroyed. Such experiments could be used to refine the procedure and test its likelihood of causing birth defects. After years of destructive experiments, the ban on allowing live birth could be reconsidered.
So NBAC’s proposal is not a ban on cloning but a permission slip for experimenting on embryos and a mandate for destroying them. This approach is reflected in S. 1602, a bill introduced by Senators Kennedy and Feinstein to prohibit transferring a cloned human embryo to “a woman’s uterus.” Under S. 1602, researchers could clone embryos and experiment on them without limit; they would violate the law only if they failed to throw away the embryos afterwards.
What does human cloning have to do with abortion?
Quite a bit, because bills like S. 1602 would enforce a ban on “cloning a human being” by mandating the destruction of all cloned human embryos. This would mark the first time Congress has ever declared that human embryos are not humans and are worthy only of destruction.
How have pro-life legislators reacted to the Commission’s proposal?
They have introduced well-crafted bills that actually ban the use of cloning to produce human embryos, instead of banning live birth for embryos already produced by cloning. For example, Senators Bond, Frist, Lott and others have introduced S. 1601, which bans the use of human somatic cell nuclear transfer to produce an embryo (including a preimplantation embryo). This bill bans the use of cloning technology on humans, instead of banning pregnancy or live birth.
What is the current stance of the biotechnology industry?
A number of biotechnology companies, which have a commercial interest in the possibilities of cloning, oppose the Bond/Frist/Lott bill as an infringement on their freedom to explore new avenues of research. They support the Kennedy/Feinstein approach: Allow unlimited cloning and experiments on cloned embryos, so long as the embryos are later discarded.
Why do these companies want to produce human embryos by cloning?
Some companies want to clone embryos so they can refine the procedure and ultimately produce live-born children by cloning. The procedure could then be offered to infertile couples, people who want to copy themselves, etc. Other researchers are more interested in the cloned embryos themselves. The ability to produce large numbers of identical embryos by cloning may make it easier, for example, to test the effect of different stimuli or toxic drugs on human development — differences in outcome could readily be attributed to differences in the stimuli, since the embryos themselves would be identical. Cloning could produce an unlimited supply of human “guinea pigs” for controlled experiments, dissection to produce cell lines, etc.
How do these commercial interests argue against a real ban on human cloning?
They do not say they favor human cloning or destructive embryo experiments, because they know public opinion would be against them on those grounds. Instead they argue, for example, that the Bond/Frist/Lott bill and similar proposals are vaguely worded and will end up banning all kinds of procedures to which people have no ethical objection — e.g., cloning cells, tissues, and animals.
What is the truth about these claims?
They are false. The Bond/Frist/Lott bill bans cloning only when it produces a human embryo. A similar House bill by Rep. Ehlers specifically exempts use of cloning to produce “animals other than humans” or to produce “molecules, DNA, cells other than human embryo cells, or tissues.”
What can we expect from this debate in the near future?
Cloning advocates and pro-abortion groups will complain that “abortion politics” is interfering with scientific research. Pro-life groups will point out that legislation is necessary to prevent an abortion mentality from driving the future of scientific research.