“Landmark Conference for United Nations on Human Cloning and Stem Cell Research,” declared the press release from a group called the Genetics Policy Institute. It went on to say that “leading scientists from four continents” would explain the issue to U.N. delegates on June 2 at the U.N.’s New York City headquarters.
More education on human cloning sounds like a good idea. The U.N. narrowly decided last year to delay a decision on an international covenant against human cloning until this fall, in part because many delegates seemed confused on the issue. The key confusion was over whether to ban the use of the cloning procedure itself (known as somatic-cell nuclear transfer) in humans, or only to ban the use of the embryos thus produced to attempt a pregnancy and live birth. Belgium and over 20 other countries are sponsoring a proposal to ban only the latter, so cloning could still be used to mass-produce human embryos for research (misleadingly called, by some, “therapeutic cloning”). Costa Rica, the United States, and over 65 other countries are sponsoring a complete ban on human cloning (whether for “therapeutic” or “reproductive” purposes).
A good scientific conference on the issue could carefully explain that the human-cloning procedure is exactly the same regardless of how the cloned embryos are used later on. It would review the challenge of trying to stop rogue scientists from putting these embryos in wombs if we allow them to conduct cloning research and perfect the (now horribly wasteful) cloning procedure. And it would throw a cold bucket of reality on the hyped claims that human cloning will produce “therapeutic” benefits anytime soon, as even many supporters have done of late.
No such luck here. The GPI conference was more a political power grab than a science seminar. Its moderator and featured speakers were the same cheerleaders who have exaggerated the therapeutic “promise” of cloning to stall effective action against the practice in the U.S. And its chief underwriters–Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias and his life partner, fashion designer Charles Nolan–are not scientists but political activists. Other funding sources included venture capitalist Brook Byers, who has raised $3 million for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, and prominent law firms active in biotechnology patent litigation.
There was more politics and economics than science on display. Biotech companies (and their patent lawyers, and the researchers who depend on corporate support) tend to favor embryonic over adult stem cells, because there’s more potential profit in the former: It’s easier to take out a patent on a cell line than on cells that reside in people’s own bodies, and the embryo can’t sue to defend its property rights. For that matter, if a simple surgical procedure using a patient’s own stem cells could cure most devastating diseases, this would be a big yawn for biotech: You can’t own other people’s bodies (at least if they’re legal “persons”) and you can’t patent surgical procedures. They need something you can harvest, isolate, quantify, and market–even if it is not necessarily the best road to cures.
The conference flyer from the Genetics Policy Institute (formerly called the Human Cloning Policy Institute) endorses “therapeutic cloning,” claiming “a clear distinction between unethical reproductive cloning and this lifesaving science.” GPI executive director Bernard Siegel says a ban on cloning embryos for research purposes would “destroy the hopes of millions suffering from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, cancer, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, ALS and other devastating conditions for which no cure is known.”
The irony is that each of GPI’s claims has been rebutted by the very scientists who serve on its advisory board and spoke at the conference to promote cloning for research.
What about the assertion that there is “a clear distinction” between reproductive and therapeutic cloning? That claim is denied by the very scientist who first succeeded in creating a cloned embryo and destroying it for stem cells. Dr. Woo Suk Hwang of South Korea has said that the cloning technique he developed “cannot be separated from reproductive cloning,” and is exactly the same technique except for what is done with the cloned embryo afterward. Now, Siegel says, Dr. Hwang is “dispel[ling] the confusion and myths” on this issue–presumably not Siegel’s own myth that “therapeutic” and “reproductive” cloning are totally separate beasts.
A further irony is that this conference, supposedly promoting a ban on “reproductive” cloning, is endorsed by individuals and organizations open to the practice. Conference speaker and GPI adviser Ian Wilmut, creator of “Dolly” the cloned sheep, recently said: “I do envisage that producing cloned babies could be desirable under certain circumstances, such as preventing genetic disease.” And the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (endorsing the conference as part of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research) wants to keep open the option of supporting “reproductive cloning” if it becomes safer for mother and child. The chair of the ethics committee that drafted ASRM’s policy, Professor John Robertson, maintains that reproductive cloning should be constitutionally protected as a form of procreative liberty. The ASRM’s policy paper, echoing Dr. Hwang, also admits that allowing human cloning by somatic-cell nuclear transfer for “therapeutic” purposes “is likely to produce knowledge that could be used to achieve reproductive SCNT.”
Why would these people who don’t oppose “reproductive” cloning endorse and take part in a conference ostensibly geared toward banning it? Perhaps it’s because the conference’s central purpose is not really to ban anything but rather to protect cloning for research purposes. (After all, biotech companies, venture capitalists, and patent lawyers hardly have any clear professional interest in defending the dignity of human procreation.) Perhaps some of these people also know that a policy allowing research cloning is the very thing needed to make the cloning procedure “safer” and more efficient, so it can later be deemed ready for reproductive use. To scare people by announcing you will start making cloned babies right now, as the Raelian UFO cult has done, is the stupid way to set the stage for “reproductive” cloning; to support a partial “ban” now, until the method is perfected, is the smart way. Ultimately you get the same result, you allow public opinion to support your agenda gradually, and in the meantime you eliminate the maverick competition.
What about GPI’s claims that cloning offers the only hope for curing a long list of diseases? On this point, too, GPI science adviser Ian Wilmut has been embarrassingly candid in other forums. In a recent issue of the British Medical Journal, Wilmut discussed the idea of making cloned embryos in order to obtain genetically matched stem cells that will not be rejected by patients’ immune systems. He conceded, though, that this is not needed for treating diseases of the nervous system, because “fetal cells in the central nervous system appear not to be subject to rejection.” (Actually the studies he cites show that the nervous system does not reject unmatched adult cells either.) He added that cloning is probably useless for treating juvenile diabetes, lupus, and other autoimmune diseases, where the body’s immune system attacks its own cells as though they were foreign: “In such cases,” he wrote, “transfer of immunologically identical cells to a patient is expected to induce the same rejection.”
Suddenly GPI’s list of cures requiring human cloning becomes very short indeed. Cloning is largely useless or irrelevant for all the conditions over which celebrity spokespersons have brought the most attention to: Parkinson’s (Michael J. Fox), Alzheimer’s (Nancy Reagan), spinal-cord injury (Christopher Reeve), and juvenile diabetes (Mary Tyler Moore). And cancer never should have been on the list, because there is no evidence in the laboratory or in animals that embryonic stem cells have a therapeutic effect on cancer–on the contrary, they themselves cause tumors with disturbing frequency when placed in animals.
Completing the case against GPI’s “therapeutic” claims is another GPI science adviser, Australian stem-cell expert Alan Trounson. Trounson was a conference speaker and his home institution, Monash University, a sponsor. Yet two years ago Trounson announced that “therapeutic cloning” had become unnecessary to stem-cell progress. Citing the difficulty of obtaining large numbers of donor eggs for the procedure, as well as its time-consuming and expensive nature, he said there were “a number of good alternatives” for producing stem cells that are not rejected by patients’ bodies. “I think the time for therapeutic cloning is probably past,” he said. Some months later, reassured by these remarks, the Australian parliament gave final approval to a national ban on all human cloning.
The evidence against the “therapeutic” use of cloning is even stronger today than it was in 2002. Yet now, as part of the GPI’s lobbying campaign at the U.N., Trounson obediently says that “the benefits of therapeutic cloning are really quite enormous.”
Why would Trounson and Monash help persuade ambivalent nations to pursue “therapeutic cloning,” an approach they abandoned and even played some part in making illegal in their own country? Could they be cynical enough to send other nations down this road, knowing it is a dead end, so they can corner the market on real medical advances?
It turns out that the best-kept secret in this field is the remarkable clinical progress arising from non-embryonic stem cells that pose no moral problem. The recent PBS show “Miracle Cell” highlighted successes in using adult stem cells to treat patients with heart damage and spinal-cord injury. With so many U.S. scientists fixated on the hypothetical “promise” of cloning, however, it is perhaps no accident that Portugal provided this groundbreaking treatment for spinal-cord injury, Germany and Brazil pioneered adult-stem-cell treatments for heart damage, and Canadian researchers developed a new adult-pancreatic-islet-cell treatment that has allowed over 200 diabetes patients to throw away their insulin needles. Incidentally, Germany and Canada have passed complete bans on human cloning and Brazil is in the process of doing so.
U.N. delegates attending the Genetics Policy Institute were told that human cloning must be protected if we are to have any hope of curing devastating diseases. Yet the conference’s own speakers have said that this claim simply isn’t true. They were told that “therapeutic” and “reproductive” cloning can be kept completely separate–but again, conference speakers and endorsing organizations have said this isn’t true. They were probably even told that the Bush administration’s stance against all human cloning subordinates scientific truth to politics. That will be a stone thrown by people living in some very fragile glass houses of their own.
–Richard M. Doerflinger is deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.