Therapeutic Cloning Ignores Fate of
By David Hess, M.D.
Many of our loved ones, neighbors, and patients suffer from incurable diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, and Lou Gehrig's. One of the next frontiers of medicine will be regenerating damaged organs such as the brain that normally poorly repair themselves.
The "holy grail" of the emerging field of regenerative medicine is to find stem cells that can make new nerve cells and build new organs but not grow into something unwanted, like a tumor.
There are two potential sources of these stem cells: adult stem cells derived from adult brains, bone marrow, or even skin, and embryonic stem cells derived from human embryos. These embryonic stem cells could be obtained from "spare" embryos at in vitro fertilization clinics or from specially prepared cloned embryos, a process known as therapeutic cloning.
As presented by its proponents, therapeutic cloning is seductive and attractive, beckoning us with promises of cures for debilitating disease. Some say all the opposition to cloning is just "political." Well, some of it is, but it is more than that.
Therapeutic cloning, also called "nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells," involves removing the nucleus from an egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus from an adult cell.
This nuclear-transplanted cell with the genetic material from one parent is then allowed to divide until it forms a few hundred cells, an early embryo stage called a blastocyst.
Stem cells are harvested from the inner cell mass of the blastocyst, but this always involves the destruction of the embryo. The crux of the issue is what human status you accord this blastocyst.
Many believe that life begins at conception, that the early embryo is endowed with a soul, that it is the image of God. Others, including some in the scientific and biotechnology community, maintain that this cloned embryo is just a clump of cells, "a thing" to be harvested and exploited.
For most, it is a great moral leap to simply dismiss this cloned embryo as an object. Since this cloned embryo has the same potential for life as a "two-parent" embryo derived from in vitro fertilization clinics, it is morally difficult to distinguish between the two and hard to justify a protection of one and a blatant disregard for the other.
Unlike "leftover" embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics, which were created with the intention to give life, these cloned embryos are created only to be destroyed, created as products to be strip-mined for their stem cells. In the world of biotechnology, they become mere commodities.
Whether you accord the cloned embryo full human status or even some lesser status, you are likely to be distressed by their 100 percent assured destruction, appalled by the blatant commercialization by biotech companies and disquieted by the trafficking in eggs needed to supply the cloners (likely to exploit the most vulnerable women in society).
All civilized nations adhere to a code of research ethics that requires the minimization of harm to a human subject. Both the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki declare that societal benefits alone can never justify deadly harm to a human subject. The Hippocratic oath tells physicians to "first, do no harm."
The only assurance we have with therapeutic cloning is that the human embryo will be destroyed. The benefits to the sick and suffering in our society are only speculative.
The term "therapeutic cloning" is a misnomer as it is certainly not therapeutic for the embryo. Proponents of therapeutic cloning have exaggerated its potential to treat and cure tragic human diseases while at the same time dismissing the obvious harm to the cloned embryo.
All of us should urge our legislators to increase funding for medical research. We want to say yes to those suffering from incurable diseases. There are alternatives to therapeutic cloning: adult stem cells.
Few scientists would have predicted even five years ago the remarkable plasticity shown for adult cells, cells that can be harvested from human bone marrow, from umbilical cord blood, or from human brains even hours to days after death. These adult stem cells raise no ethical concerns. Research that involves deadly harm to a human life/potential human life should never be contemplated if an alternative exists, no matter what the potential societal good.
It is more important to do what is right than to do what seems good.
David Hess is chairman of the Medical College of Georgia's neurology department and is conducting research in the area of adult stem cells. This article appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is reprinted with the author's permission.