Attack on the Clones

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If the Senate follows the House's lead and bans all human cloning, it launches a war that will have a real human body count especially among diabetics and Parkinson's sufferers and will produce considerable political fallout, especially for Republicans. In the end, it may be a war fought over the Islets of Langerhans. Those are the clumps of pancreatic cells that make insulin, and they're a frequently-cited example of the sort of cell that cloning could be used to produce.

The Senate bill, created by Sam Brownback and thirteen co-sponsors, would be a sweeping ban on all forms of human cloning. It would follow the U.S.'s call via the United Nations (on February 26) for a global ban on all cloning and human embryo research and the launch last week of anti-cloning ad campaigns by the National Right to Life Committee and Stop Human Cloning. For legislative purposes, there are two types of human cloning: reproductive and therapeutic. Reproductive cloning is the creation of a fertilized egg, using a genetic sample from an already-existing person, for the purpose of implanting the egg in the womb and letting a living, breathing child be born. Virtually everyone agrees that the reproductive cloning process is not yet understood well enough to try this with humans. That means that banning human reproductive cloning right now has no big impact (though it might be argued that laws against child abuse and malpractice could take care of the problem).

The story with therapeutic cloning is very different. Less glamorous, less talked about, but of much greater immediate medical significance, therapeutic cloning merely involves the mimicking of the fertilization of an egg cell in a petri dish so that the initial cell clump can be induced to divide into specific desirable types of cells, such as islet cells for diabetics. The company Advanced Cell Technologies announced in November that it had successfully created a cloned human zygote that could in principle be used for therapeutic cloning research.

As Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, a public health expert and president of the American Council on Science and Health (the organization that runs HealthFactsAndFears.com), puts it, "What we're talking about right now is petri dishes and cells, and there's no relationship between that and a breathing, walking-around human being." She sees therapeutic cloning as a potentially valuable tool in its own right, not a first step toward treating people as mere experimental material. "I'd be horrified at the idea of working with a viable human fetus that had been implanted," she says. "We're looking at ways to use our own cells or cells in our families to create cures, and to put an impediment in front of that would be simply horrendous." Dr. Henry Miller, the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnoloy and now a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and a Director of ACSH, is also worried about the ban. "It's like if we had banned bone marrow transplantation because it was dangerous and uniformly unsuccessful during the first attempts," he says. "We would have removed from the medical community an important and significant technique."

Parkinson's and diabetes are often pointed to as two candidates for treatment-through-cloning, since the process could be used to replace dysfunctional cells. About a million and a half Americans people such as Billy Graham and Muhammad Ali suffer from Parkinson's, as do Pope John Paul II and Canada's Michael J. Fox. About 6% of the U.S. population has diabetes, somewhere between 16 and 18 million people (according to the Centers for Disease Control and the American Diabetes Association), over a million of these being cases of type 1 or juvenile-onset diabetes. Diabetes contributes to about 200,000 deaths per year and is the seventh-leading cause of death in America. Should we worry more about the fate of mindless, isolated cells in research labs than about real, living patients?

Randy Schekman, a Berkeley cell researcher, says that by helping Parkinson's patients through therapeutic cloning, "you might have the possibility of using their own genetic material to replace dead cells in the brain that aren't producing dopamine. So, it's not a question, then, of reproducing the whole organism...you're going right to the problem source, a small number of cells in a tissue of the brain in the case of Parkinson's, or a small piece of the pancreas in the case of diabetic patients, and simply engineering the production of those few cells. I have much less difficulty with that."

Other potential uses of the technology remain more speculative but are worth keeping in mind when considering a ban. George Martin at the University of Washington genetics department hopes we'll create "burns treatment, or remodeling [of] areas of skeletal muscle that have been lost, cartilage in joints devastated by arthritis."

Some will argue that any such experimentation is the first step down the slippery slope toward the radical pro-choice position, including so-called partial-birth abortion. There are several forces at work that foster the illusion that one must choose one of the polar extremes in any abortion-related debate. Television, the two-party political system, and the dualistic impulse in the human mind are all drawn to debates between vocal antagonists, so we less often hear from the uncertain people in the middle, even when they're in the majority. To make it clearer that extreme positions are being described in the next few paragraphs, let us coin the term zygoteans for the subset of pro-lifers who insist that immediately upon conception (or even creation in a lab) a one-celled zygote is a full-fledged person, with a soul as real as your or mine. Similarly, let us call the subset of pro-choicers who insist that a partly-born child isn't yet a person infanticidists.

We rarely think of the abortion issue in terms of a spectrum of possible positions, yet aren't the zygotean and infanticidist position really the two farthest ends of a nine-month spectrum? (There are also other, less chronological ways that one could look at the issue, of course.) "Even among religious fundamentalists, there's a difference of opinion, apparently, between Mormons and Catholics, about when the embryo is infused with the soul," notes Schekman. Between zygote formation and being-partially-born, at about six days into a pregnancy, comes the implantation of the zygote into the uterine wall. During the third month, the nervous system and major organs develop and the ex-zygote, little more than an inch long, is now called a fetus. Around the fourth month, the entity starts to kick and show other signs of activity, in a phase the ancients called "the quickening" and considered the real marker of personhood. During the third trimester, the major nerve tracts of the brain develop (now, one might argue, the entity has a rudimentary mind and is no longer just an unthinking lump of flesh). Around eight months, the fetus is capable of living outside the womb with minimal medical assistance, though its basic mental functions will continue to develop for some time.

Anyone with pro-life sympathies will at least want a fetus in the later stages of this process to go unmolested. Partial-birth abortion certainly looks like murder, and we can explain why in purely secular terms: When you destroy an innocent, functioning human mind, generally speaking, you've commited murder. It might even be reasonable to say that an eight or nine-month fetus has moral weight comparable to that of an adult human. But on what grounds besides bald assertion, fueled by blind faith, can one say the same about the one-day-old cell in the petri dish?

Without millions of diabetics' and Parkinson's sufferers' lives (not to mention votes) hanging in the balance, one might choose to wear one's zygotean extremism as a badge of honor, cocky proof that one is "serious" about the pro-life position. But with the advent of the stem cell issue, pushing one's pro-life position that extra inch pushing the definition of personhood to the moment of fertilization, even in a petri dish becomes a potential form of indirect mass murder in itself, leading as it does to the squelching of valuable, potentially life-saving research. Do average, non-fanatical pro-lifers really want to push their position that far? Do senators want to go that far out on a political limb? (I should confess I've lost grandparents to Alzheimer's and diabetes, diseases that therapeutic cloning might one day treat, but I'm confident that even if I hadn't, the zygotean position would strike me as rash.)

Zygoteanism wouldn't be so infuriating if the arguments for petri-dish-as-citizen were rock solid, but they always take a highly tenuous, even subjective form. For example, the zygoteans sometimes insist that anything with the potential to grow into a person _is_ a person, though no one insists an acorn is already a tree or a graduate student already an aged, tenured professor (and even if one did so insist, cells kept in a petri dish do not in any ordinary sense have the potential to become people). There is a rarely-acknowledged strategic flexibility to these sorts of arguments. When mammalian cloning was announced in 1997, Rush Limbaugh and some bishops quickly warned that no clone, even when grown to adulthood, could ever have a soul (as I noted in an There Ought to Be Clones at the time. Now, in a complete reversal, we're told a microscopic ball of cloned cells already has a soul and mustn't be damaged (though the usual process of sperm meeting egg hasn't occurred, nor the creation of a new, unique genetic code things the zygoteans normally assert are necessary to trigger ensoulment). Any argument that leads to a prohibition on cloning is permissible, apparently.

Add a spiritual tone and some conservatives will succumb to what are essentially Luddite arguments. "Remember when scientists first wanted to dissect cadavers or do heart transplants?" asks Dr. Noretta Koertge, Indiana University science historian, recounting the uproar. "What would happen to Man's soul and identity if we were to do such unnatural things to the body!" She is alarmed by bioethicist Leon Kass's claim that, as she puts it, "philosophical analysis should be trumped by what he calls 'the wisdom of repugnance'...the last word when the conclusions of rational argument do not validate our gut feelings about what is, as the teenagers say, 'seriously yucky'." Banning yucky or vaguely disturbing things, needless to say, would do away with much of modern medicine. Michael Werner of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, disputes the zygotean intuition that something horrible and homicidal occurs in therapeutic cloning. "It's questionable whether it's an 'embryo': there's no fertilization, there's no sperm involved. You're not talking about anything like a sentient being," he points out. On a more practical level, he foresees the biotech industry shifting operations to Britain if laws become more rigid here. "It's inappropriate for the Congress to decide that a legitimate area of scientific inquiry should be turned into a felony. It's a very dangerous precedent. We've already seen some medical researchers moving abroad." A global ban would make flight much more difficult.

Of course, concerns about hampering science and business would be secondary if it were clear that therapeutic cloning were murder, but no one acquainted with the facts can rightly insist that it is clear. The zygoteans should show just a dash of the humility, moderation, and cautious moral reflection they so often urge upon the infanticidists. We have all known the temptation to take a decent principle to a perverse extreme. Take property rights. I value them very highly but not so highly that I'd shoot a three year-old who wandered absent-mindedly onto my lawn and wouldn't leave. Sanity limits the strictness with which I apply the principle in ambiguous situations. Maybe for once we should ask for similar restraint on the part of the zygoteans. When millions of patients demand to know why their senators outlawed a potential treatment, will the senators reply with confidence that they know know that cells in petri dishes are people, people with rights that outweigh the needs of patients? If the Senate is determined to pass this legislation, they had better prepare their replies to that question now.

Editor's Rants, even when they cite ACSH employees and Directors, do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the American Council on Science and Health as a whole.

Responses:

March 22, 2002

Dear Mr. Seavey,

I found your rant on cloning very sensible. Recently, Dr. Michael West of Advanced Cell Technologies spoke about recent developments in biotechnology at the Royal Society in England. He made the interesting point that during the first fourteen days after fertilisation the period during which stem cells are isolated for the kind of research you describe the dividing cells are not necessarily destined to become a person. Even assuming their eventual successful implantation in a woman, the cells can potentially divide into twins or triplets or even merge with another fertilised egg to form a single person. This makes it even more nonsensical to think of the clump of a hundred cells as an "individual."

Far more revealing, though, was Dr. West's discussion with Dr. Michael Jarmulowicz, Master of the Guild of Catholic Doctors. The subject was the recent decision in Britain to allow a couple to use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to select their next baby to be a healthy tissue match for the sick child they already have [so that the new child, unlike the discarded zygotes, could donate tissue to the older child without either child being harmed]. When pressed by Dr. West, Dr. Jarmulowicz said that he would rather see the existing child die than have a sibling selected by PGD. The term "pro-life" begins to sound like a travesty, rather than a euphemism, when the rights of hypothetical future people take precedence over the life of a real child.

Timandra Harkness
London, UK