Human cloning a reality, political debate begins

Douglas Johnson, the legislative director of the Washington D.C.-based National Right to Life Committee, would likely agree with the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who said that when words lose their meaning, people lose their liberty. Johnson told The Interim he is upset by the “smokescreen of euphemisms,” created by the powerful, well-funded biotech lobby to justify the cloning of human embryos for the purpose of killing them and extracting stem cells for research

A classic example, he says, was a press conference earlier this year, when two congressmen insisted that an amendment to the Weldon-Stupak bill would allow for what is termed “therapeutic cloning,” but would not actually involve the creation of any human embryos. The truth, says Johnson, is that even president Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission admitted in its 1997 report Cloning Human Beings, that “any effort in humans to transfer a somatic cell nucleus into an enucleated egg involves the creation of an embryo, with the apparent potential to be implanted in-utero and developed to term.”

Human cloning has become an important issue for the right-to-life movement for two reasons, says Johnson. The first: a terrifying future of “human embryo farms,” where human life is created just so it can be destroyed. The second is that it may lead to many more abortions in society. “Cloning is a very risky procedure,” says Johnson, noting there were over 270 unsuccessful attempts before scientists were able to clone Dolly the sheep. “While our primary concern has to be embryo farms, and the killing of cloned embryos, some biotech firms want to implant these embryos into women. Well, if any of these pregnancies go wrong, they won’t waste time aborting.”

Asked about the dangers of cloning human beings, Father Joseph Howard of the Human Life League, told The Interim: “The number one problem is it violates the child’s right to be born in-utero. It subjects a child to the possibility of gruesome experiments, and cloning is fraught with tremendous biological dangers. We know that horrible genetic errors can occur in mammals when they’re cloned, and it is wrong to subject a living being to that.”

Fr. Howard says there is “no empirical evidence” to support the claim that cloning human embryos will lead to new medical breakthroughs.

Johnson adds: “Even people who do stem cell research don’t think cloning is the right way to go about it, because you need a huge number of eggs to work with, and that’s difficult to achieve through cloning.” Johnson says the real problem with cloning embryos for medical research is ethical. “I think the Nuremberg Trials established you cannot use non-consenting human beings for medical experiments. If I went to a university and said: ‘I can develop a cure for AIDS, but it will require me to kill 100 mentally retarded children,’ they would show me the door.”

The cloning issue is once again making headlines because of news in late November that a Massachusetts biotechnology firm, American Cell Technologies, had created the world’s first cloned human embryos. “These are exciting preliminary results,” said ACT researcher Robert P. Lanza to reporters. “This work sets the stage for human therapeutic cloning as a potentially limitless source of immune-compatible cells for tissue engineering and transplantation medicine.” Speaking on NBC’s Today program, ACT’s top executive, Michael West, said his company’s work does not involve human life, but “cellular life, a fundamental difference.” He added: “I consider myself pro-life, by the way, and I do not see this as a pro-life issue at all.”

Focus on the Family replied to West’s argument: “To say that these embryos are ‘cellular’ life, but not human life is to engage in a game of semantics. Every one of us started out as embryos. To redefine life in any other terms puts all life at risk. While this for-profit corporation claims it does not intend to clone humans for birth, other groups do. And they will use this research to that end. How many embryos will be created and destroyed before scientists perfect these experimental methods – methods with unknown results?”

A second company, Clonaid, announced soon afterward, that it had also created human embryos, yet for security reasons keeps the location of its laboratory a secret, and has not published its research. “I’m very pleased that I’m not alone,” said Clonaid director Brigitte Boisselier. “We’re doing embryos every day.” She added that at some point, Clonaid would like to create a fully developed human clone.

Interestingly, the ACT announcement may have been overblown. Rival scientists who toured the ACT facility claimed afterward the ACT team were not successful in creating embryos large enough to extract stem cells from, and only one of the eggs survived as long as the six-cell stage. “From what I saw yesterday,” said Kevin Wilson of the American Society for Cell Biology, “these guys didn’t get very far.”

In spite of ACT’s lackluster results, reaction to the news was swift. “To manufacture a human being is a terrible human rights abuse,” said pro-life Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.). “Mad scientists are still mad scientists no matter how white their lab coats are and how many bioethicists they hire.” U.S. President George W. Bush added, “The use of embryos to clone is wrong. We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it, and that’s exactly what is taking place.”

A ban on cloning humans passed the House of Representatives last July by a healthy 262-162 vote, yet the Senate has delayed taking action against cloning, even though Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) recently called the ACT announcement “disconcerting” and “the wrong direction.” It is thought the Senate will take up the issue in either February or March.

While an ABC News/Beliefnet opinion poll shows Americans oppose human cloning by a 2-1 margin, Johnson admits the eventual outcome of this fight is by no means certain. “There is a very powerful lobby in Washington for the biotech industry,” says Johnson. “They’re fighting zealously for this, and they have some allies. (Senator) Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) is in favour, and he’s very influential in the Senate. Other senators don’t understand the implications of this.”

Indeed, Congressman Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), the author of an unsuccessful bill that would have allowed cloning for research, compared opponents of cloning to those who silenced Galileo and Copernicus, saying, “It really is a horrendous thing to stop this research.”

Here in Canada, Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day said Parliament should act quickly to ban human cloning. “Otherwise people will move here to Canada from other jurisdictions that are going ahead and banning it.” Creating new human life, he said in the House of Commons, “for the purpose of destroying it just to harvest its cells is simply and absolutely wrong.” In a rare show of parliamentary unity, Prime Minister Jean Chretien agreed with Day, and said the draft legislation – which had been studied in the House of Commons Health Committee – would ban the creation of embryos, created either through cloning or in vitro fertilization, for research purposes. The legislation would, however, allow stem cell research from aborted human embryos.

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