There has been a great deal of confusion and obfuscation surrounding the news this week that scientists have cloned human embryos for the first time. Embryonic stem-cell research advocates have been distorting basic facts about cloning for well over a decade. As Wesley J. Smith aptly notes, the basic biological distinction between cloning embryos and deriving stem cells from those embryos is perhaps the first thing that journalists and research advocates forget or conceal when discussing therapeutic cloning. What the Oregon cloning researchers reported this week was that they had cloned embryos and then destroyed those embryos to create embryonic stem cells. These are distinct steps.
Many journalists have failed to grasp this distinction. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, titled its story on the subject “Experiment Brings Human Cloning One Step Closer.” The reporter, Gautam Naik, claims that “The researchers stopped well short of creating a human clone.” But in fact, the experiment was human cloning; the embryos that the researchers created are cloned human organisms. A more precise way of describing the research would have been to say that it brings us a very significant step closer to the creation of cloned children — what is often called “reproductive cloning.”
Part of this confusion can be attributed to the study’s authors, who have tried to downplay the connection between their discovery and reproductive cloning, suggesting that the embryos they created could not result in a successful pregnancy; they point to their failed attempts at using similar techniques to create cloned monkeys. (Cloned monkeys could serve as useful animal models for medical research. Currently scientists rely on mice when they want to conduct genetic research on mammals, but monkeys, having physiologies much more similar to ours, would be far more helpful.)
These disclaimers ring false. While it is true that no one has succeeded in creating cloned primate offspring, in 2010 Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the leader of the Oregon cloning team, reported that he had achieved a single pregnancy using a cloned monkey embryo. The fetus developed long enough to have a heartbeat detectable through ultrasound. Although the pregnancy failed after 81 days (about half the normal gestation period for that species), the fact that a pregnancy would develop so far indicates that reproductive cloning of primates is in principle possible. Creating cloned human babies may not be possible today, but given that it is now possible to create cloned human embryos, and that scientists will continue to hone techniques for reproductive cloning of non-human primates, there is every reason to think that scientists will in the very near future have the ability to create cloned human offspring. This should motivate American lawmakers at both the state and national levels to pass legislation banning the cloning of human beings.
Reporters aren’t just having trouble with the science of stem-cell research; they are also stumbling over the legal, ethical, and policy aspects of the stem cell debates. In a report on the cloning discovery, Maggie Fox writes at NBC.com that “a federal court has only just ruled in the past year that government funds may be used in the research.” Not quite. While a federal court did uphold the Obama administration’s ability to fund research on embryonic stem-cell lines, the Dickey-Wicker amendment still prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from funding research in which human embryos are created or destroyed. The federal court ruled (incorrectly, in my view) that this law does not apply to research on embryonic stem-cell lines, but the law itself still stands and it clearly applies to the creation and destruction of cloned human embryos.
Another difficult and complex question raised by the new cloning discovery is why anyone would even bother with therapeutic cloning when ethically acceptable technological alternatives like induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are already available. While it is unlikely that therapeutic cloning will replace iPS cells, it seems clear that many stem-cell scientists will be interested in pursuing both cloning and iPS methods. The authors of the new cloning paper note a few studies that favorably compared cloned stem cells in mice to iPS cells from mice, and some others that highlighted various genetic and epigenetic problems that have been found in different iPS cells. But the iPS field is still relatively young, and there has been a great deal of progress even in the half-dozen years since iPS cells were first discovered. It seems likely that the challenges facing iPS cells will be resolved by more research; resorting to therapeutic cloning may not be necessary at all for progress in regenerative medicine. Of course, the fact that less morally problematic alternatives exist does not ensure that scientists won’t continue to pursue the morally problematic avenues of research.
Our commitment to the defense of human life need not demand a complete sacrifice of scientific progress, but only a relinquishment of some of the comparative advantages that come from pursuing a wider variety of research. Even when technological alternatives exist, moral argument and political action remain necessary to ensure that scientific research is carried out in an ethically responsible manner.
— Brendan P. Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.