A bill is now before the Minnesota state legislature calling for a comprehensive ban on human cloning in that state. Reporting on this policy debate, the Minnesota Independent claimed that "‘Cloning' ban proponents muddle facts in stem cell debate."
The exact opposite is true. Those who oppose the ban are offering the same deceptive arguments designed to confuse and mislead that were used when Congress considered a similar ban on the federal level and whenever other states have debated a comprehensive cloning ban.
Their argument begins and ends with the false, unscientific assertion that there are two kinds of cloning: "reproductive" cloning and "therapeutic" cloning. The first, they assert, is meant to produce a cloned human being and should be banned. "Therapeutic" cloning, on the other hand, produces stem cells for use in research and therefore should not be banned.
Prof. John Wagner, clinical director of the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute made the same distinction when he rather hysterically asserted that the proposed ban is "not just an attack on human reproductive cloning, it is a full-scale assault on stem cell research." Commenting on Minnesota's cloning debate, an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News flatly declared "therapeutic" cloning to be "an entirely different practice" from reproductive cloning. The editors at the Minneapolis Star Tribune agreed, writing that the procedure that would be banned is "a method used to generate patient-specific stem cells." And here is Minnesota State Sen. Kathy Sheran, according to the Independent's report: "I think we are really in danger of confusing the public about the difference between human cloning using stem cells for the creation of another human being and stem cells used for therapeutic purposes," said Sheran. "They are very different and very separate, and this rolls them all in together and confuses the public into thinking this is all about human cloning when it isn't."
These remarks border on gibberish. There surely is a "danger of confusing the public" in a public policy debate such as this, but that danger is coming from opponents of the ban
Cloning is the process of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, or SCNT. During SCNT, a donor provides a somatic cell, such as a simple skin cell. The nucleus of that cell, which contains all the genetic material, is then inserted into an egg cell that has had its own nucleus removed. The cell is then stimulated and if the process is successful, a cloned human embryo is produced that is genetically almost identical to the donor of the somatic cell.
Thus, all cloning is reproductive cloning because, if successful, it always reproduces another human being. There are not different types of cloning - cloning is cloning; the only question that arises is what one intends to do with the newly created cloned embryo - implant him or her in a womb to try for a live birth, or destroy him or her for research purposes.
But whatever one decides to do with the cloned human embryo, cloning has already occurred at that point. To conclude that because other people may intend two different fates for the cloned embryo, therefore there are two different forms of cloning is unscientific and specious. The distinction between so-called "therapeutic" cloning and "reproductive" cloning was invented by cloning proponents for purely political, not scientific, reasons.
The point is made by James Thomson, one of the two individuals credited with first isolating human embryonic stem cells for use in research. Asked in an MSNBC interview about those who make this distinction, Thompson responded:
"See, you're trying to define it away, and it doesn't work... [B]y any reasonable definition, at least at some frequency, you're creating an embryo. If you try to define it away, you're being disingenuous."
Understanding how important terminology was to the public policy debate on human cloning, the President's Council on Bioethics (President Bush's council) took up this subject early on when it turned its attention to cloning. The Council agreed that the terms "reproductive" and "therapeutic" cloning were inadequate and misleading, and were based on the intentions of the cloner, not on any real distinction in the act of cloning itself (SCNT). Therefore, the Council replaced those terms and unanimously adopted "Cloning to produce children" and "Cloning for biomedical research." Because this terminology was adopted unanimously, it means that even those members of the Council who endorse human cloning for research purposes, endorsed this language and rejected such usages as "therapeutic" and "reproductive" cloning.
Sen. Sheran's remarks also show that she is thoroughly ignorant of the SCNT process. Human cloning does not use "stem cells for the creation of another human being;" it uses an egg and a somatic cell to produce an embryo. Nor does cloning produce "stem cells used for therapeutic purposes." Cloning produces an embryo which can then be destroyed to obtain stem cells. Where do Sen. Sheran, the editorial board at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and others of like belief think embryonic stem cells come from if not from an embryo?
The term "therapeutic" cloning is also deceptive because (1) it is certainly not therapeutic for the embryo that is destroyed and (2) no therapies exist or are even near development as a result of human cloning. In fact, scientists have not yet even successfully produced a cloned human embryo and grown it to the point where its stem cells could be harvested, much less derived therapies. So much for the proposed ban being a "full-scale assault on stem cell research:" without ever having derived stem cells from a cloned embryo, scientists both here and abroad are somehow managing to continue with research using adult, embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCS).
Moreover, one can support hESC research and oppose cloning, as, e.g., syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer does. He has written:
"What makes research cloning different from stem cell research -- what pushes us over a moral frontier -- is that for the first time it sanctions the creation of a human embryo for the sole purpose of using it for its parts.... It is the ultimate commodification of the human embryo. And it is a bridge too far."
The tired, deceptive arguments now being heard in Minnesota were used by cloning proponents in California in 2004 when they achieved passage of Prop. 71, to provide $3 billion in state bonds for cloning and embryonic stem cell research.
In a court affidavit, Dr. Stuart Newman, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College, made short shrift of these arguments (Dr. Newman supports both abortion rights and human embryonic stem cell research).
"The assertion that the viable product of nuclear transfer is not an embryo is equivalent to the assertion that organisms that develop from these products, such as Dolly the sheep, are not animals" Newman said.
"Whether or not a scientist or physician intends to implant a cluster of cells does not determine whether or not it is an embryo. If it is a cluster of liver cells, for example, the intention to implant it does not make it an embryo. Correspondingly, if it is a blastocyst capable of giving rise to embryo stem cells, the lack of intention to implant it does not cause it not to be an embryo.
"To believe that the material nature of a biological entity changes depending on the intention of the investigator is an example of magical thinking, which is antithetical to modern science."
Just so. Opponents of a comprehensive ban on human cloning in Minnesota are free to engage in their "magical thinking." Just don't claim it's science.
Gene Tarne is communications director of Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics (www.stemcellresearch.org).