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The Washington Post and Cloning


Speaking of the Post, it gave a little Christmas present to the biotech industry yesterday, in the form of Peter Slevin’s article on the controversy over cloning in Missouri.

Here’s how Slevin begins his explanation of what the fight is about: “At issue is an amendment to the Missouri constitution proposed for the November 2006 ballot by a well-funded coalition of research institutions and patient advocacy groups frustrated by legislative attempts to ban early stem cell work in a state with a significant stake in biomedical research.” Ban early stem cell work? Who has made such attempts? State senator Matt Bartle has attempted to ban cloning. He hasn’t tried to ban research on embryos taken from fertility clinics.

Slevin continues: “If voters support the amendment, Missouri would be the first state to formally recognize a right for scientists to conduct federally approved embryonic stem cell research, and for patients to receive treatment, backers say.” What on earth does Slevin mean? Cloning is “federally approved” in the sense that it hasn’t been federally banned, although a majority of the House has twice voted to ban it. It’s not federally funded. Would the initiative condition the legal right of scientists in Missouri to conduct cloning research on whether the federal government funded it? Surely not.

Or is the initiative merely authorizing Missouri’s researchers to clone so long as it’s not illegal under federal law? I think that’s what Slevin means, since that’s a talking point of the initiative’s backers. But it’s such a pointless “concession”–of course Missouri isn’t going to be able to exempt itself from a federal statute–that it seems like a misleading advertisement for the Missouri initiative. (See, we’re following all kinds of rules!)

There is, of course, the possibility that Slevin himself doesn’t know what he meant here.

Then we get this little context-setter: “The collision of politics, science and religion is particularly vivid in a region where, just next door, a conservative majority on the Kansas State Board of Education recently rewrote science standards to spur teachers to challenge modern Darwinian evolution.” Translation: There are a lot of hicks in flyover country, so who knows whether these brave scientists will prevail?

“Stem cell proponents believe. . .” Stem-cell proponents? The attempt to avoid the word cloning has reduced Slevin to gibberish. I support research on stem cells taken from adults’ somatic cells. Does that make me a “stem cell proponent”?

Slevin finally gets around to mentioning the word “cloning” when he points out that there is a federal bill to “ban the procedure widely known as therapeutic cloning.” Then we get this: “A particular type of embryonic stem cell research has become the focus of the Missouri debate. Known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), it is the procedure that produced Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal. In SCNT, the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is replaced with the nucleus of an ordinary body cell that contains a full set of genetic information. Within a few days, this develops into a human embryo, or the beginnings of one, that contains a cluster of stem cells. . .” This isn’t so bad. What Slevin is telling us here is: Contrary to what I just wrote a few paragraphs above, nobody is trying to “ban early stem cell work.” They’re just trying to ban a type of it that involves cloning.

But then Slevin goes back to botching things with this comment: “Most mainstream scientists contend that the cells should not be considered an embryo or a human clone because they are not implanted in a woman’s uterus and will not become a fully formed fetus.” Well obviously nobody thinks that stem cells are embryos or human clones. (Slevin’s “cells” refers back to “stem cells.”) Do most mainstream scientists really deny that the cloned human embryo created in SCNT is a clone and an embryo?

Are the editors of Nature outside the mainstream? They think it’s a mistake to redefine the word “embryo” in this way–but more to the point, they recognize that a redefinition is precisely what’s going on. (See Nature’s July 7, 2005, editorial on the subject.) If most mainstream scientists won’t use the word “cloning” in this context, it’s a recent development. As late as 2003, the proponents of SCNT called it “therapeutic cloning” or “research cloning.” That would have been more helpful context for Slevin to provide than that bit about evolution in Kansas.

And then Slevin repeats the falsehood with which he began but which he then briefly abandoned: “Embryonic stem cell research remains legal in Missouri, but repeated efforts to criminalize it caused [the Stowers Institute] to limit recruiting and halt plans for a second laboratory” (emphasis added).

Slevin begins and ends the piece with quotes from a “stem cell proponent”–the same one, as it happens.

Rick Weiss does more of the Post’s stem-cell coverage than anyone else. I don’t always like what he writes, but he would never have produced anything this shabby.


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