Politics & Policy

Troubled Iowa Dreams

Caring to clone.

For years the political campaign to allow human cloning for research purposes has paid only grudging attention to anything resembling a fact. Recent events in Iowa suggest that it is now fashionable to follow this campaign into a complete fantasy land.

#ad#At issue is a February 14 Associated Press story from Iowa titled “Senate bill eases limits on stem cell research.” The reporter helpfully notes that the Iowa Senate has narrowly approved a bill that “Democrats say would ease restrictions on embryonic stem cell research,” but that “critics say it could open the door to human cloning.” AP’s headline, then, apparently announces: “We at AP are not critics. We are Democrats.”

More important is the question whether they are journalists. For they simply could have read the new bill, Iowa Senate File 162, and reported what it actually does. It does nothing so coy as “open the door” to human cloning. It simply legalizes human cloning, by repealing the law against it that Iowa passed in 2002. It replaces this ban with a new law allowing human cloning (using the “somatic cell nuclear transfer” technique used to create Dolly the sheep) unless it is done “for implantation or attempted implantation into a woman’s uterus or a substitute for a woman’s uterus.”

(The bill fails to define how long an animal or mechanical surrogate must be able to maintain an embryo’s life to be deemed a “substitute” — presumably the sponsors do want to be able to keep those embryos for at least a few days to experiment on them. Is a Petri dish a “substitute” for a uterus?)

The bill then redundantly adds that human cloning will be legal if done “for the purpose of creating embryonic stem cells.” But under the proposed law, human cloning will be just as legal if done for the purpose of any other grotesque experimentation, or pure recreation, or to create human embryos as a protein substitute to sprinkle on salads. The only important thing, under this bill, is that any embryos produced by human cloning must not be born alive. The bill replaces a ban on human cloning with a ban on human survival.

AP’s confusion about the bill’s effect is only the beginning of the fantasy. For as the bill went from senate to house, Governor Chet Culver declared that “it’s really up to the 100 state representatives now to decide if they want to give hope and opportunity to tens of thousands of people.”

Who are these tens of thousands of people? A hint of an answer is that Culver said this at a press conference surrounded by parents of children with juvenile diabetes, who spoke about a “cure” for their children’s illness.

It is worth asking: Have these parents ever read anything about cloning and juvenile diabetes — or are they being misled and used? Even the most vigorous proponents of human cloning for research purposes, such as Ian Wilmut (head of the team that created Dolly), admit that stem cells from cloned embryos will not treat juvenile diabetes. The reason is simple: Any embryo cloned from a child with juvenile diabetes (and any stem cells from that embryo) would be an exact genetic match to the child, and thus have exactly the same genetic profile that provoked the illness in the first place.

The AP reporter, gamely coming to the governor’s aid, adds that “many scientists” hold that embryonic stem cells from cloning also promise new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease. But, in fact, it is difficult to find any competent scientist who holds this. When some members of the Reagan family were pushing that line in 2004, the Washington Post reported the consensus among experts on Alzheimer’s that this is almost certainly not the kind of illness that embryonic stem cells can ever treat. When asked why there is nonetheless a widespread public perception that embryonic stem cells may treat this illness, National Institutes of Health expert Ron McKay famously noted: “To start with, people need a fairy tale…”

Are treatments for other conditions on the horizon from cloned human embryos? No. Attempts to achieve the first essential step in so-called “therapeutic cloning” — simply making a human embryo by this technique and obtain usable stem cells — have all been failures. In the most recent case, involving the team of Hwang Woo-suk in South Korea, the researchers compounded their failure with fraudulent claims of success over the course of two years, and they now face criminal and other charges. As the New York Times noted last January: “The technique for cloning human cells, which seemed to have been achieved since March 2004, now turns out not to exist at all, forcing cloning researchers back to square one.” And square one is where the field has remained since then.

So one can only shake one’s head in amazement at what Culver’s predecessor, Tom Vilsack (now a Democratic presidential candidate), said when he kicked off the campaign against Iowa’s cloning ban in his last “State of the State” speech last year. Vilsack said that when he signed the ban on what he calls “nuclear cell transplants” in 2002, “we never dreamt that new treatments dependent upon such transplants would be developed so quickly. Well, they have been, and as a result we should revisit our ban on nuclear cell transplants. We should remove the restrictions and allow life saving treatments to be administered to Iowans here in Iowa rather than forcing them to leave our state…”

Treatments? Developed quickly? On what planet does the Iowa governor’s mansion actually reside?

Ironically, Americans have indeed been forced by the current political climate to go elsewhere for groundbreaking stem-cell treatments — to Germany, Thailand, Portugal, etc. They have gone to these places for promising new clinical trials using adult stem cells, because so many of our local politicians (including, apparently, two Iowa governors in a row) are fixated on fantasies about cloning.

In the scientific community, the mantra used to be that cloning research was essential to progress in use of embryonic stem cells for treatments. Ever since cloning became synonymous with failure and fraud last year, a different tune has been sung, with experts dismissing cloning as “a boutique science, one at the fringe of the rapidly expanding world of stem cell biology.” For some reason their political allies have not yet received the new message: Save yourself and your other stem-cell research! Abandon the cloning ship!

The reality is that the “lifesaving cures” campaign for embryonic-stem-cell research is in bad shape overall — or would be, if anyone were paying attention to the facts. More and more experts in the field are backtracking furiously, publicly admitting that any human treatments using these cells may be “decades” away. Possibly it even consoles some political supporters that their stance may not definitively be proved wrong until after decades more of expensive and inconclusive research, when they have retired from public life.

Not a bad deal, really: Promote “hope and opportunity” while affecting a general support for “progress”; ignore the falsehoods, failures, and frauds that plague this agenda; and keep promising pie in the sky, by and by, until it’s too late for the voters to do anything about it. Not too nice for those patients who needed cures, of course.

 – Richard Doerflinger is deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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