Who's Afraid of Human Cloning?
By James K. Glassman
The latest effort is underway right now in Congress, where a bill to ban human cloning is moving swiftly. Introduced by Republicans Bill Frist and Kit Bond, it is a colossal mistake -- a triumph of superstition, government coercion, self-righteousness and fear over good sense, health, family values and confidence in the future.
The bill makes it a felony, punishable by a prison term of up to 10 years, for scientists to conduct research using "somatic nuclear cell transfer" -- the same dazzling procedure that created the cloned sheep Dolly -- to produce a human clone or a cloned human embryo.
Nearly all bans on research prove to be temporary; science eventually trumps politics. But in the meantime, as Gregory Benford of the University of California writes in Reason magazine, there is a high cost in "lives lost because the resultant technology arrives too late for some patients."
Also, with scientific change coming faster, the cloning ban sets a dangerous precedent, validating a knee-jerk response to technology. Even Frist acknowledged last week that "we're banning something before it's fully understood." In my book, that's an excellent definition of ignorance.
Frist and Bond aren't alone. President Clinton, who banned federal cloning research a year ago, calls the procedure "morally unacceptable."
Majority Leader Dick Armey -- whose letterhead, ironically, carries the slogan "Freedom Works" -- is the most egregious anti-cloning zealot of all. "Congress should enact a permanent ban on human cloning," he said recently, "to keep this frightening idea the province of the mad scientists of science fiction."
In fact, scientists who are interested in cloning aren't mad at all. They want either to help sick people live longer, healthier lives or to help infertile people have babies.
A year ago, Ian Wilmut, a Scottish embryologist, created a little lamb by taking a normal sheep egg cell, removing the nucleus (the cell structure that contains the genes) and placing a cell from the mammary tissue of an adult sheep alongside it.
An electrical charge then fused the two cells into one. Remarkably, the new cell reverted to its embryonic state and started dividing. It developed into a fetus and then a newborn lamb that was identical, in its genetic makeup, to the adult lamb that contributed the mammary cell. Anti-cloning hysterics say that 276 embryos were destroyed to create Dolly, but Gina Kolata, the New York Times reporter who broke the story, and the author of the new book "Clone," told me this was "a gross distortion."
Here's what happened, according to the paper in the journal Nature: 277 eggs underwent fusion but only 29 survived for as much as five days. These clumps of cells were then transferred into 13 female sheep. Three months later, ultrasound tests found that only one fetus (Dolly) survived. "There were no monsters, no miscarriages, nothing," says Kolata. Immoral?
Today, she adds, the technology is so advanced that even these inefficiencies are an anachronism.
The technique will make all kinds of medical research easier and faster. For instance, by studying the way cells revert and divide, we may be able to find cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and to grow new organs to replace damaged ones.
A report by NIH says that somatic nuclear transfer "might also be used in the future to create skin grafts for people who are severely burned" and to generate new cells to treat liver damage, leukemia, sickle-cell and heart disease.
In addition, the technology could be used in gene therapy, which can replace a patient's defective DNA (which will cause disease) with a normal gene, perhaps very early in life, and prevent AIDS and cancer.
Some of this can be accomplished with cloning techniques that manage to get around the restrictions in the Frist-Bond bill, but why have limits at all? Because such research is somehow "unnatural"? Because people should have babies only by "natural" means?
"If humans have a right to reproduce, what right does society have to limit the means?" wrote Nathan Myhrvold, chief technology officer of Microsoft Corp., last year in Slate, the electronic magazine.
Remember the uproar over "test-tube" babies just two decades ago? With in-vitro fertilization, the sperm and egg are combined in the lab and surgically implanted in the womb. "To date," writes Myrhvold, nearly 30,000 such babies have been born in the United States alone. Many would-be parents have been made happy. Who has been harmed?"
The only difference between these babies and clones is that the combined DNA of the egg and sperm is replaced by the DNA of only one adult donor, inserted into a "hollowed-out" egg. Now politicians want to pass a law that says that one combination is fine but the other is criminal.
It's astounding that groups that represent Americans with serious diseases aren't outraged by what Congress is doing -- not to mention infertile couples and scientists and physicians who value their freedom of inquiry.
And it's astounding that Republicans -- whose political hopes lie not with reactionaries who fear the future but with people (comfortable with high technology and the Internet) who embrace it -- should be in the vanguard of the cloning ban. Dumb and dumber.
The writer is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company