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Stem cell research needs regulation

It is time to end the debate on stem cell research and start regulating it.
/ Source: Special to

Dr. Woo Suk Hwang and Dr. Shin Yong Moon of Seoul National University in South Korea have become key figures in the emerging field of stem cell research.

The South Korean scientists published a paper in Science magazine on Friday showing that they were able to generate 11 stem cell lines from the clones. While they did not intend to do so, the achievement of the South Korean team will now become the center of international discussion about the ethics of using Dolly-style cloning techniques to create stem cells for research and ultimately cures. It is time to end the debate and start regulating the research.

What is especially impressive about what Hwang and Moon did is that they figured out a way to make the technique work. Previous attempts to create a human embryo by cloning — transferring DNA from a body cell into a human egg from which the DNA has been removed had required hundreds of tries just to get one embryo. Using new techniques the South Korean teach got a viable human stem cell line once in every 17 attempts.

Cloning is the gold standard for stem cell research. When stem cells are made from cloned embryos it means that you can transplant any cells made from the stem cells back to the person from whom the DNA was taken without fear of rejection. You are you own source of stem cells so if scientists can go on to figure out how to make muscle cells, spinal cord cells, or insulin cells from stem cell lines derived from your own body then there is no reason they could not easily use them to fix your torn tendon, grow back your injured spinal cord, repair your damaged heart or treat your diabetes.

Host of ethical questions
But a host of ethical questions arise in the wake of this remarkable achievement. The critics are already jumping all over the South Korean announcement.

What Hwang and Moon and their colleagues did is illegal in many states in the United States.  President Bush and some in the Senate and House want to keep it that way. Tom DeLay, Bush and Bill Frist say that no public funds should go to support this type of research in the United States. It is killing the innocent to save lives in their view. They may even move to outlaw funding by individual states of cloning for stem cell research, which will soon begin in California. And they certainly don’t want to see the House pass a pending bill that would allow some forms of embryonic stem cell research.

It is not clear what rules should govern human cloning for stem cell research. The South Koreans say they had these new human cloning experiments reviewed by local ethics committees, but what rules or principles did such committees use?

There are no agreed-upon rules governing issues such as how and when you get consent from women to donate their eggs to be used in cloning experiments to create human embryos. Can or should those whose DNA or eggs are used have a say in what researchers can do with anything they create from them? How long can South Korean researchers keep stem cells made from cloned human embryos? Can they sell them to others inside and outside their country?

A moral Catch-22
None of these questions have answers because many politicians and religious leaders who oppose stem cell research don’t want these questions answered. They want to win their argument by keeping cloning in a moral Catch-22.

Rather than argue about how best to control the rapidly evolving technology of cloning for stem cell research, they know that you will be more worried and more opposed to cloning for research if you worry that the technology will get out of control. If there are no rules at all then you have a reason to keep worrying. So the critics prefer to continue to leave cloning for research unregulated so that you will stay scared and cloning will stay banned.

Those who oppose cloning for research do so because they want you to treat embryos as people. But since this position is impossible to defend they fall back again and again on the scare tactic that if cloning for research is allowed then human clones will be living in your neighborhood soon thereafter. And who knows what these human clones might do once they get a load of the neighborhood! If you think “Desperate Housewives” is a den of inequity, just wait until the clones set up shop on Wisteria Lane.

Making people by cloning them interests only the opponents of stem cell research, nuts, fruit balls and Hollywood film producers. If the prospect of a clone moving to your neighborhood really frightens you then urge the president and his political pals to pass a law forbidding human reproductive cloning. But don’t hold the science hostage. Having no rules at all except "don’t do any cloning for any reason" is neither ethically sensible nor, as the work in South Korea shows, practical. The best way to keep an eye on cloning is to regulate it rather than to hide behind the fig leaf that it has to be banned, lest it be used to make people.

Nor does the moral objection at the core of the opposition to what the Koreans did make ethical sense. Is destroying cloned embryos to get stem cells the moral equivalent of murder?  This is to confuse potentiality with actuality.

Think about it. If a squirrel eats an acorn is that really the same as when lightning destroys a mighty oak tree in terms of value lost? If there was a young child inside an infertility clinic that had caught on fire and a shelf full of embryos in a freezer, which ought to saved first? If the embryos were to be destroyed, that would be unfortunate. If the child were to be killed that would be a tragedy beyond belief. It is only a blind adherence to a religious belief about cloned embryos that could have anyone say that cloning embryos to find cures is wrong.

The critics of cloning embryos for research would have you fear the Korean breakthrough by gravely intoning that cloned people are next. But, it is not really there worry because if it were the solution — a ban on reproductive cloning is readily at hand. No, the critics are really arguing is that it is just plain immoral to make and destroy a cloned embryo from cells taken from your skin, tongue or the lining of your mouth that might, if stem cell research is allowed to go forward, help cure you of Parkinsonism, spinal cord injury, diabetes or the damage done by a heart attack. That view, if allowed to prevail, means that you can look forward to a lot more announcements from South Korea and other countries and a lot fewer cures for you and your family. And where is the ethics in that?