Backers say creating embryos for stem cells holds medical potential. Foes say it’s murder.
WASHINGTON – Politicians, philosophers, lawyers and scientists have argued about it for years, but therapeutic cloning – making a human embryo for medical research – is now a reality.
And the debate over the procedure is growing more intense.
South Korean scientists announced they had made not one but 30 clones, not to grow into human babies but to use as a source of embryonic stem cells. These are the body’s master cells, which, when taken from embryos, have the potential to create brain, muscle, blood, organ and a variety of other cells.
Supporters say the technique, a cloning method called nuclear transfer, can transform medicine, allowing doctors to grow custom-made and perfectly matched organ and tissue transplants for their patients.
Opponents say the practice is murder because it involves the creation and destruction of a human embryo. They also fear that the science could lead to the cloning of babies.
“Reports of human cloning experiments undertaken in South Korea underscore the need for a comprehensive national and international ban on all human cloning,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) said in a statement.
Such cloning “treats the youngest of humans as mere property and should be banned,” he said.
Some ethicists agreed.
“Controversy continues to swirl around killing even long-abandoned human embryos for research,” said John Kilner, president of the Chicago-based Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.
“The South Korean experiment disturbingly goes significantly further. It produces human embryos for the explicit purpose of fatally mining them to obtain bodily materials for experimental purposes.”
Groups that advocate cures for specific diseases disagree – and note that human embryos are destroyed daily in fertility clinics, in abortions, and in natural miscarriages.
“We don’t care where they find a cure for this disease,” said Bob Goldstein of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
Donald Kennedy, editor of the journal Science, which published the report, rebutted fears that the release of details about the experiment was a recipe for cloning human babies.
“It is a recipe only in the sense that ‘catch a turtle’ is the recipe for turtle soup,” Kennedy told a news conference in Seattle, where the research was presented.
“The goal of this research is to cure patients using their own tailor-made cells,” said Daniel Perry, president of the Campaign to Advance Medical Research, a group formed to support therapeutic cloning.
“While those opposed to medical research may argue that this work could lead us closer to human reproductive cloning, it’s just not the case. There is a clear, bright line that divides reproductive cloning from somatic-cell nuclear transfer, and that’s implantation. Without it, no new human life can be created.”
Some ethicists agreed that therapeutic cloning could be morally acceptable. Laurie Zoloth of Northwestern University in Chicago said the report’s publication made renewed debate more necessary.
“Stem-cell research is international and will be the result of a fully international effort,” she told the news conference. “Scientists from many faiths and many traditions will do the work. No one religion, no one moral authority can claim to be the final arbiter of this work.”
Both sides agree on the urgency of banning, at the very least, cloning to make babies.