Stop Cloning Around - Part 2
In this second of two articles, Dr John R. Ling examines some of the political, legal and scientific debates surrounding human cloning.
Two battles are currently being waged in the human cloning arena. One involves therapeutic vs. reproductive cloning, and the other centres on the use of adult vs. embryonic stem cells. Both battles have been largely propagandised and hugely misunderstood.
In August 2000, the long-awaited Donaldson Committee Report recommended to the British Parliament that reproductive cloning should become illegal, but that research into therapeutic cloning should be allowed. Indeed, many within the pro-cloning lobby have tried to steal the high moral ground by denouncing human cloning of the reproductive variety. ‘It’s abhorrent, appalling and awful. We want nothing of it’, they say. Indeed, some have gone even further – they now appear to reject all human cloning because they have renamed therapeutic cloning as cell nuclear replacement (CNR). Thus, the dreaded ‘C’ word can be sidestepped and the general public can be insulated from the fact that CNR is used as the starting point in both reproductive and therapeutic cloning.
Moreover, when the Donaldson Report discussed therapeutic cloning it did so almost exclusively in terms of stem cells derived from human embryos, obtained either by cloning or from the ‘spares’ generated by IVF procedures. The possibility of using stem cells from adults was largely ignored. Why? Because scientists want to perfect the CNR technique so that they can use it sometime, somewhere, in reproductive cloning? Because they are fascinated only by experimenting with human embryos? Because it can reduce the embarrassingly large numbers of surplus IVF embryos? Because the scientific imperative makes them hungry for the big breakthrough with its attendant publicity, kudos, and power?
However, it is now beyond cavil that the benefits of therapeutic cloning can be achieved without this wholesale destruction of human embryos. Recent research from the USA, Sweden, UK, France, and elsewhere has shown that many adult tissues (plus umbilical cords, and even milk teeth) retain some stem cells, and surprisingly, and contrary to recently-held biological dogma, these can be reprogrammed to generate a broad range of different cells and tissues. In other words, stem cells from adults, rather than from human embryos, can be used to achieve the perceived advantages of therapeutic cloning. So, stem cell therapies that require the destruction of human embryos may already be redundant. A better way forward, a bioethically non-contentious way, has been found. You can check out some of the latest research in this exciting and constantly-advancing field at www.stemcellresearch.org
This blinkered approach to progress in science and medicine is reprehensible. But it is not only the Donaldson Committee that has virtually dismissed adult stem cell work. The world-famous National Institutes of Health in the USA has too. It has argued that, ‘Adult stem cells are often present in only minute quantities, are difficult to isolate and purify, and their numbers may decrease with age.’ Yet on the very day the Donaldson Report was released (16 August 2000), The Times carried news from a group in New Jersey which had used stem cells, isolated from adult bone marrow, and transformed them into nerve cells. The group’s spokesman, Dr Ira Black, said, ‘These cells grow like wildfire in culture, so we have a virtually unlimited supply.’ These two statements are incompatible. Stem cell science is moving so fast – there was just a three-month gap between these two statements – yet if this technology is going to be monopolized by those from the ‘culture of death’, then it will never become a praiseworthy enterprise.
The British Parliament then took the next lamentable step and implemented the recommendations of the Donaldson Committee. In December 2000, the House of Commons, followed, in January 2001, by the House of Lords, approved an extension to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 to include the use of human embryos for research into therapeutic cloning. Britain thus became the first country in Europe to permit human cloning. This was despite an appeal against such a move from the European Parliament, and despite the fact that other countries have already banned this sort of work. Parliamentary debate on the menacing link between therapeutic and reproductive cloning was again blurred, little was said about adult stem cells, the inevitable destruction of human embryos during the harvesting of their stem cells was virtually ignored, and the entire discussion, on such a weighty bioethical issue, was unduly rushed.
Human cloning has, of course, gone beyond domestic politics – it now has a global dimension. Earlier this year, scientists from around the world petitioned the United Nations to ban it. Yet this seemingly-admirable move smacked of lexical engineering, for this so-called ban on human cloning was in truth a ban only on reproductive cloning, not therapeutic cloning. Whether the intent was deliberately to fog, or even fool, ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’, you may decide. Certainly Lord May, president of the Royal Society, clouded the debate by unhelpfully referring to early human embryos as ‘… less complex … than the average potato.’ But this sort of skulduggery did not fool all of the politicians and an alliance, headed by the USA and Costa Rica, pressed the General Assembly of the UN for a total ban on both forms of cloning. Then, early in November 2003, this rational strategy was scuppered by an Iranian proposal (passed by the slimmest majority of 80 vs. 79) to delay any such decision for two years. Meanwhile, the rogue cloners can continue, unencumbered.
Despite this (almost) global opposition to reproductive cloning, it still remains a real threat. A year and more have now passed since several mavericks claimed to have produced the first human clone – though we still await the indisputable, bouncing evidence. Mind you, can the word of a flying-saucer cult, like the Raelians, ever be trusted? Nevertheless, the lack of proof does not mean that human reproductive cloning is impossible, though it does seem to be more difficult than originally thought.
Reproductive cloning is also much more risky than originally thought. There are grave concerns about the high incidence of fetal disorders, spontaneous miscarriages, malformations and neonatal deaths among cloned mammals. In fact, there is now a recognised condition called ‘adult clone sudden death syndrome’. In the light of these problems, many consider that reproductive cloning of humans would be simply too dangerous and irresponsible – at least for now.
Indeed, there are now doubts about the entire feasibility of current attempts at human reproductive cloning. It seems that the technique of CNR may never succeed in cloning primates and humans. A 2003 study from the USA reported that although several mammals have been successfully cloned, all 716 cloned embryos from rhesus monkeys failed to develop. Apparently, in primates and humans, unlike in other mammals, such as sheep, cows and mice, at least two proteins, which are essential for normal growth and development, are attached to the chromosomes of the ovum, so when it is denucleated in CNR, these are removed and discarded.
And the legal wrangles over cloning have not been insignificant. In formulating the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, Parliament sought to ban the creation of cloned human embryos. Section 3(3)(d) prohibited ‘replacing a nucleus of a cell of an embryo with a nucleus taken from a cell of any person, embryo or subsequent development of an embryo.’ In 1990, it was erroneously understood that cloning must begin with a fertilised ovum. Along comes CNR with an unfertilised ovum as its starting point – therefore CNR is outside the HFE Act 1990 – therefore CNR is outside the remit of the HFE Authority. Furthermore, all human embryos created outside the body by CNR are not ‘embryos’ according to Section 1(1), and accordingly are not subject to regulation under the Act.
The ProLife Alliance contested these matters. It was granted a hearing in the High Court in January 2001, which was heard in October 2001, and a deferred judgement was granted in November 2001. The case went to the Court of Appeal in January 2002 and was lost. The case finally went to the House of Lords in February 2003. It was finally lost. The upshot is that CNR is regulated by the HFE Authority, and that embryos not created by fertilisation are included in the 1990 Act. This was an entirely worthy legal challenge, but it became merely a stalling tactic – human embryo cloners are now playing catch up.
The final ‘take home’ message is this – we do not want, or even need, human cloning, whether therapeutic or reproductive. Instead, we should welcome adult stem cell research – it is a new and revolutionary approach to medicine, yet it is also bioethically uncontroversial. Furthermore, those of us opposed to obtaining stem cells from human embryos are now being accused of depriving people with debilitating diseases of possible cures. It is the utilitarian embryologist vs. the man of principle. It is a time to stand firm. We are not anti-science, or anti-research, or anti-progress. But we do insist that science and medicine are practised within a wholesome bioethical framework, firmly rooted within the ‘culture of life’. And the best, indeed, the only, sufficiently-rugged such framework is that derived from the ethical principles of the Bible.
Dr John R. Ling is a former lecturer at the University of Wales. He is now a freelance writer and speaker with a website at www.johnling.co.uk