Biotechnology

Calling Hippocrates!

When it comes to human cloning, President Bush should remember: First, do no harm.

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President George W. Bush wants to commit an immoral act--in the name of morality. He wants to deny millions of sick Americans access to a potential medical technology that the National Academy of Sciences believes could some day cure many disabilities and prevent many premature deaths.

Surely, that can't be right. After all, George Bush is a moral man, a compassionate conservative. He wouldn't forbid people to seek cures for their ailments. But that's exactly what he and many members of Congress will do if they pass legislation that would criminalize research on therapeutic cloning.

This past Sunday, the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology announced that it had succeeded in creating cloned human embryos, with the aim of trying to produce stem cells that could be transplanted into patients. Researchers took skin cells from several patients, including Judson Somerville, a 40-year-old Texas man who injured his spinal cord in a cycling accident and is now paralyzed from his chest down. Using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), researchers removed the nuclei that contain Somerville's genetic material from his skin cells and injected them into enucleated human eggs. A few of those eggs then began dividing in petri dishes.

Although the eggs did not get very far along in this experiment, the idea is that some day doctors using such "therapeutic cloning" will be able to transform Somerville's skin cells into nerve cells. These nerve cells would be perfect transplants because they would be genetically identical to Somerville's other cells and thus would not be rejected by his immune system. The promise of therapeutic cloning is that the transplanted new nerve cells would knit up Somerville's broken spinal cord and he would walk again. The results of Advanced Cell's research were published in E-Biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine.

Last July, in an unprecedented misstep, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the draconian Human Cloning Prohibition Act, which would criminalize therapeutic cloning research by fining scientists and physicians up to $1 million and throwing them into prison for up to 10 years. This wicked bill is backed by an unholy alliance that joins conservatives such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol with left-wing Luddite extremists such as Jeremy Rifkin. The alliance is now campaigning together to get the Senate to outlaw therapeutic cloning medical research. So far they have not made much headway in the Senate, but this week's news has ignited the debate again.

So why would President Bush and many members of Congress oppose helping people like Judson Somerville to walk? After all, in August, President Bush showed that he understands the vast potential that human embryonic stem cell research offers to patients when he allowed federal funding to be used for studies employing 72 human embryonic stem cell lines. In September, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences' report, Stem Cells and the Future of Regenerative Medicine, concluded that somatic cell nuclear transfer research to create immunologically compatible stem cells like that done by Advanced Cell Technology should be "actively pursued." That's because, as the report concluded, stem-cell-based therapies could alleviate much of the suffering of the 58 million Americans who will be struck in their lifetimes with cardiovascular diseases, the 30 million who will come down the autoimmune diseases, the 16 million who endure diabetes, the 5.5 million who will lose their minds to Alzheimer's, and on and on. Just as the medical revolution ushered in by vaccines and antibiotics vanquished many of the diseases that killed young people in the last century, stem cell therapies might conquer many of the diseases of old age in the 21st century.

Nevertheless, President Bush has declared, "The use of embryos to clone is wrong. We should not as a society grow life to destroy it."

In saying that, Bush and other opponents are confusing cellular life with human life. They mistakenly argue that a microscopic ball of undifferentiated cells in a petri dish is as morally significant as Judson Somerville. They want to accord full moral standing to cells that, unlike Judson Somerville, have no brains, no thoughts, no hopes, no feelings, and no expectations. Indeed, millions of these balls of cells produced by means of normal conception fail to implant in women's wombs every year and they simply cease to exist, unnoticed and unmourned, because most of us do in fact know that these human blastocysts are not the moral equivalent of human babies. (See "Blastocyst Brouhaha".)

New medical technologies have often been opposed. For centuries, autopsies were prohibited as sinful. People rioted against smallpox vaccinations and opposed the pasteurization of milk. Many objected to heart transplants. In the field of reproductive medicine, condoms were banned as immoral, and contraceptive pills were illegal in several states until the late 1960s. Many of the same people who oppose therapeutic cloning, such as bioethicist and Bush adviser Leon Kass, also opposed in vitro fertilization, which since the '70s has enabled tens of thousands of infertile couples to have families.

"We're sincerely trying to help our fellow human beings who are sick," explained Advanced Cell Technology's CEO, Michael West, on CNN's Crossfire earlier this week. "And we understand that these microscopic balls of cells have not formed a human being yet. And to not use them in compassionate way for our fellow human being is moral evil."

Let's hope that President Bush and the Senate will not commit that moral evil by criminalizing this medical research.