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Cloning ethics: Separating the science from the fiction

An alliance of abortion opponents, social conservatives and biotechnology-phobes wants you to believe that human cloning is always unethical. It isn’t. The reasons why are very important since the quest to crush cloning is likely to be renewed later this year.
/ Source: Special to

An alliance of abortion opponents, social conservatives and biotechnology-phobes wants you to believe that human cloning is always unethical, even when it’s done for the purpose of finding cures for horrible diseases. It isn’t. Understanding the reasons why is very important since the quest to crush cloning is likely to be renewed later this year.

There is so much confusion and misunderstanding surrounding cloning in part because it’s tied to our ongoing battle over abortion. Abortion opponents continue to look for any opportunity to secure legal recognition for the personhood of an embryo. When abortion foes like President Bush call for a ban on cloning, they are really using cloning as a tool to try to pry open Roe v. Wade. By claiming that cloned embryos are people and that their destruction has to be outlawed, they hope to get legal standing for all embryos. A ban on all forms of cloning would lead to bans on the destruction of all human embryos, cloned or otherwise. That would likely spell the end of abortion as well as in vitro fertilization and most forms of prenatal genetic testing in the United States.

The view that a cloned embryo is a person is, however, wrong. There is a huge difference between a cloned cluster of embryonic cells in a petri dish that could yield disease cures and a baby.

Cloning myths
The future of cloning has far more to do with cells than with people. The push for a total ban on cloning rests on several myths and far-fetched scenarios that have gained way too much currency in Congress, the Oval office and in the media.

Myth #1: Cloning for scientific research and cures, known as therapeutic cloning, sends humanity hurtling down the slippery slope toward the inevitable cloning of human beings.

The best rebuttals to this argument are the thousands of failed attempts to clone animals. Cloning has a terrible track record in making embryos that develop into fetuses, let alone make it to birth.

Attempts to develop cow embryos into animals fail 85 percent of the time, while more than one-third of those clones born alive suffer serious life-threatening health problems. Despite a lot of effort, no one has managed to clone an adult monkey or any other primate. Nearly all experts on primate cloning believe that monkeys and human beings will never be cloned because the biology of primate reproduction is simply unlike that of cats, goats, sheep and mice.

At present, cloned human beings exists only in science fiction, lurid tabloids and in the boastful and bogus claims of sham scientists and cult kooks. For now, the only destiny for cloned human cells is to help scientists understand and cure diseases.

Myth #2:

The pursuit of therapeutic cloning will lead to the exploitation of women for their eggs, since billions of eggs will be needed.

The number off eggs that is needed is grossly exaggerated. To go forward, cloned embryonic stem cell research would need thousands of eggs, not billions.

Women throughout the country are already providing thousands of eggs to infertile couples, and more eggs could be donated by women who just want to help scientists find cures to diseases or disabilities or who simply want to help find cures for their own diseases.

Myth 3: What if someday scientists find a way to clone humans safely? Unscrupulous people of means will try to crank out armies of Hitlers or lines of designer babies.

Despite what Hollywood has to say, Hitler is not coming back, even if we could clone his genes. Genes influence but do not determine personality or behavior. Rather, each of us is shaped by the unique time, place, environment and circumstances in which we live. To get a Hitler or a Saddam Hussein or any other tyrant you need more than their genes, you need their mothers, their fathers and the environment in which they grew up. Science will never be able to clone particular people to order.

If human cloning ever “worked” — which is highly improbable on a mass scale — it could not bring back the dead, create a new pathway to immortality or furnish the means to create new strains of dictators.

Myth 4: There are other techniques for finding cures including the use of adult stem cells so there is no need for cloning.

The reason to clone embryos is that the resulting cells and tissues will have the same genetic makeup as the person they come from. Therefore, they can be transplanted back to the person without fear of rejection.

The reason that adult stem cells do not offer an equally valuable alternative is that embryonic cells are the only cells capable of turning into all the various types of cells that are needed to fight disease, disability and death. And no one has figured out yet how to get adult stem cells to revert back into this omnipotent state.

If your child is dying, you want all research avenues pursued and that includes both embryonic and adult stem cell research.

The bottom line is that cloning for cures has the potential to do enormous good by saving the lives of millions of people and ending agony for millions more. These human beings and their loved ones aren’t interested in pieties and abstractions and science fiction. They are desperately seeking help for their ailments and they need to have medical scientists free to pursue those answers and cures. Banning all human cloning would be a highly unethical thing to do.

Rather than shackle American scientists, the U.S. government should encourage cloning research. The needs of children confined to wheelchairs, of parents dependent on oxygen tanks to breathe and of friends imprisoned by the creeping paralysis of Parkinson’s far outweigh the moral status of cloned cells that will never leave the petri dish. Myths should not be the basis for public policy when cures hang in the balance.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D, is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.