New England Journal of Politics
Medical Journal crosses a line.


Wesley J. Smith

The political games played by promoters of human cloning among scientists and biotechnology boosters have really gotten out of hand. The most recent example of their misleading polemics and obfuscation can be found in an editorial in the July 17, 2003, New England Journal of Medicine, in which the editor-in-chief promises that the Journal will work to help defeat legislative efforts to outlaw human cloning for biomedical research (“Legislative Myopia on Stem Cells,” by Jeffrey M. Drazen MD.).

The editorial claims that it is “unreasonable to prohibit research” using the cloning process known as somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). (In human SCNT, the nucleus would be removed from a human egg. In its place, a nucleus taken from the cell of the human donor to be cloned would be inserted. The genetically modified egg would then be stimulated electronically. If the technique was successful, human embryonic development would proceed as if the original egg had been fertilized naturally.)

To prevent a pending legal prohibition on human SCNT, Drazen vows that the Journal will “make sure that legislative myopia does not blur scientific insight.” Toward this end, he promises that the “editors will do our part” to influence the political debate “by seeking out highly meritorious manuscripts” that extol the virtues and potential of embryonic stem-cell research and human SCNT. In other words, decisions to accept or reject articles for publication about these subjects will at least partly depend on the impact they are expected to have on the public debate. Indeed, the Boston Globe reported that the Journal’s “goal” in publishing these future articles will be that of “deterring political opposition to research.”

With this editorial pronouncement, the New England Journal of Medicine effectively ceased to be an objective scientific/medical journal — at least on the issue of human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research. In becoming so blatantly political, it has undercut its crucial role as a dispassionate and credible arbiter of reliable medical information.

This unfortunate development raises several crucial questions. If the editors of the Journal are intent on using its pages as a political jackhammer in the ongoing societal debate over human cloning, then how can we trust it to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about SCNT, embryonic stem-cell research, adult stem-cell research, and related topics? For example, what if the Journal’s editors were to receive a credible paper describing a major adult stem-cell research advance — an advance that opponents of human cloning may see as a viable alternative to using tissues from cloned or natural embryos? No matter how accurate or well-written the report, would the editors still publish it, knowing that doing so might harm their stated political goal of legalizing human cloning for biomedical research? After all, early human trials have already begun using adult stem cells to treat conditions such as multiple sclerosis, spinal-cord injury, Parkinson’s, and heard disease — and the more quickly these advances move toward effective treatments for patients in need, the less urgent the embryonic stem-cell and cloning agendas will appear to Americans and their political representatives.

Or, what if the Journal received a manuscript reporting that an attempt to use embryonic stem-cell therapy in mice to treat, say, diabetes, had failed? Disclosing failures is as essential a part of the scientific process as touting successes.

Or, what if a submission for publication indicated that embryonic stem cells’ known propensity to cause tumors when injected into animals may be insoluble? What then? Publishing the article would unquestionably interfere with the editors’ wish to make research on embryonic stem cells legal and legitimate.

And how can we be assured, given the editors’ ideological zeal, that pro-cloning articles won’t be published as much for their potential political impact as for their bona fide scientific worth? The sad fact is that we can’t. Drazen’s blithe assurance that the Journal will only publish “meritorious manuscripts” favoring cloning and embryonic stem-cell research is no assurance at all. Why? Because, were the Journal’s policy simply to act in this area as it does in other fields — that is, publishing the articles that have the greatest scientific/medical merit — then there would have been no need for Drazen’s editorial at all.

Magnifying these credibility concerns is the editorial’s grossly inaccurate description of the science of human cloning. Drazen writes:

There are two distinct uses of embryonic stem cells. The first, for which there is no support among members of the scientific and medical communities, is the use of stem cells to create a genetically identical person. There is a de facto worldwide ban on such activities, and this ban is appropriate. The second use is to develop genetically compatible materials for the replacement of diseased tissues in patients with devastating medical conditions, such as diabetes or Parkinson’s disease. This is important work that must and will move forward.

It is hard to believe that the editor-in-chief of one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals would write that an “embryonic stem cell” could be used to create a “genetically identical person,” a reference to the birth of a cloned baby. Stem cells are merely cells. Implanting them could no more lead to a pregnancy than placing a blood cell or skin cell into a woman’s womb. Researchers could implant embryonic stem cells into women’s wombs from now until doomsday and it would never result in the birth of a “genetically identical person.”

Moreover, SCNT, the kind of human cloning promoted in Drazen’s editorial, does not produce stem cells per se: If successful, it produces cloned human embryos. If these cloned embryos could be kept developing for a week — which has not yet been accomplished — they could be dissected to procure embryonic stem cells. But these same cloned embryos could also be used to create a “genetically identical person” if implanted into a woman’s womb and gestated until birth. While a stem cell is just a cell, an embryo is a distinct, individual human life, albeit in a nascent stage of development. In the name of scientific accuracy and integrity in advocacy, Drazen should have made these important biological distinctions clear.

Which brings us to the essential moral point in this debate the importance of which many scientists just don’t seem to understand: Permitting research into human SCNT would allow researchers to create human life solely and explicitly for the purpose of destruction and exploitation, as if these human embryos were no more meaningful than a corn crop or penicillin mold. The majority of scientists may have no qualms about this, but the majority of the public apparently does. Opinion polls demonstrate that the American people — and indeed much of the world — is repulsed by all human cloning, whether for biomedical research or to produce children.

This opposition was reflected in the strongly bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives to outlaw human SCNT. If the companion bill in the Senate — authored by Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas and Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — is passed, President Bush will sign it and the U.S. will join nations such as Australia, Norway, Taiwan, Germany, and (soon) Canada in outlawing all SCNT human cloning.

Unfortunately, it would seem that the editors at the New England Journal of Medicine believe that the views of the scientifically unwashed have no place in this debate. Indeed, they and others in the biotechnology and medical communities seem to think that these issues are none of our business. How else to explain the overt politicization of science in recent years, a process that now threatens to undermine the scientific method and poison dispassionate professional discourse on the issue?

In recent years, science has become increasingly politicized, a trend that threatens to undermine the scientific method and poison dispassionate discourse. The New England Journal of Medicine has now added fuel to this already raging fire by transforming a highly respected medical journal into a tool for political advocacy. In doing so, they have undermined their own reputation for probity, credibility, and scientific objectivity — the very qualities the editors have tried to appeal to as they strive to defeat what they claim is an ignorant drive to outlaw SCNT human cloning.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. He is the author of Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder. His next book will explore the science, morality, and business aspects of human cloning.