What Fools These Mortals Be

On February 13, a new and ominous chapter of human history dawned when South Korean scientists published the results of their human cloning research in Science. The team earned the dreadful distinction of being the first to create and keep alive cloned human embryos for up to one week.

Some hailed the achievement. Stem cell researcher Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch, for example, called it "elegant work that provides long-anticipated proof that human therapeutic [sic] cloning is possible," though he added that "it's not of practical use at this point."

Supporters of human cloning and destructive human embryo research predictably complained that U.S. scientists will be relegated to the sidelines of this Great March Forward of Progress should reactionary forces succeed in banning human "therapeutic cloning." The research does raise many troubling concerns, but that is not one of them.

Some concerns are these:

  • What was the actual human cost of this experiment?
  • What is the likely impact on so-called "therapeutic cloning" research?
  • Is this research, or what will follow, likely to result in cures for diseases?
  • What is the likely impact on cloning to produce born children?
  • Will anything less than a total ban on human cloning protect nascent humans from continued destruction?
  • What lessons are to be learned from the South Korean "success"?

The Human Cost

The experiment succeeded, in part, because the researchers, Drs. Hwang and Moon, had at their disposal a "whopping" number of eggs (as commentary in Science described it). The abundance of eggs allowed them to experiment by trial and error with different techniques and different sources of human somatic cell nuclei – men, women other than the egg donors, etc. Sixteen women volunteers were given potentially dangerous superovulatory drugs, causing them to produce an average of 15 eggs at a time instead of one. Two hundred forty-two eggs were drawn from them and subjected to the cloning process. Of these, 213 "activated eggs" [read: human embryos] reached the 2-cell stage; 40 survived to the "compacted morula" (3-4 day) stage; thirty cloned embryos survived to the blastocyst stage (5-7 days) and were destroyed, and stem cells were successfully harvested from 20. From them, a grand total of one stable embryonic stem cell line was created for use in basic research.

Fatalities: 213 human embryos created for no other reason than to be killed at one week's gestational age, assuming they did not die in the interim due to defects inherent in the cloning process.

The research exploited women as egg factories, subjecting them to unnecessary risks from the drugs, and treated 213 young human beings as disposable research material. David Stevens, M.D., executive director of the Christian Medical Association, expressed the feelings of many when he told The New York Times:

"Many injustices and horrors have been foisted on individuals and society in the name of science. But to duplicate a living human being for the sole purpose of exploitative research and destruction is singularly morally unconscionable. To do so when morally acceptable research – the use of adult stem cells – is already producing tremendous therapies for patients is unthinkable" (quoted in A. Williams, "Cloning Concerns," The Washington Times, 2/17/04, p. A16).

The Impact on "Therapeutic" Human Cloning Research

John Gearhart, a "stem cell pioneer" at Johns Hopkins University laments that scientists in countries other than the U.S., such as South Korea, Singapore, China, and Great Britain, face fewer restrictions on human embryo research. "We feel strongly that U.S. investigators are falling behind. We see, in other countries, governments just dumping money into embryonic stem cell research" (N. Boyce, "The Clone is Out of the Bottle," U.S. News, 2/23/04, p. 42). Indeed, it is noteworthy that the South Korean government funded years of animal cloning experiments at what Hwang and Moon refer to as their "power plant for cloning." Clearly experience gained through animal cloning made possible the recent creation of cloned human embryos.

Now that Drs. Hwang and Moon have provided a blueprint for (albeit limited) success, the pace of human cloning attempts can only be expected to pick up. And biotech companies around the world and their champions – groups, for example, that promote research to study a particular disease – will step up the pressure on their governments and other funding sources to overtake South Korea's early lead.

Already New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, announcing his new state budget on February 24, has asked for $6.5 million to fund an embryonic stem cell research institute that will be jointly run by Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He hopes to allocate $50 million in state and federal funds to the project in coming years. Embryonic stem cell research and human cloning were authorized in January 2004 under a new state law.

And on February 29, Harvard University announced plans to launch a multimillion-dollar human embryonic stem cell research center where human embryos will be grown and destroyed in order to produce stem cell lines for research.

But will the increased funding and research activity in cloning and embryonic stem cell research produce cures?

Not any time soon.

For one thing, cloning is an unnatural and flawed process that rarely if ever produces healthy animals: "When an egg cell reprograms the DNA of an adult cell during a cloning experiment, Dr. Jaenisch said, the process is probably incomplete ... [so] the genes in the cloned embryo are not activated (or 'expressed') at the right time, in the right amount, and properly suppressed when not needed. ... 'We think that 30 to 50 percent of imprinted genes are not properly expressed in clones'" (S. Hall, "Specter of Cloning May Prove a Mirage," The New York Times, 2/17/04, online edition; emphasis added).

Embryonic stem cells are produced only at a great human and financial cost. And no scientist to date has found a way to control embryonic stem cells (ESC), directing their growth into a specific tissue type. ESCs are notorious for developing willy-nilly into an agglomeration of various tissues, both in the lab and when injected into animals. Their propensity for tumor formation is one of many major stumbling blocks militating against their use in humans.

The cloning of human embryos has been proposed to facilitate therapeutic treatment of diseases using perfectly matched tissues or organs, cultivated from the embryonic stem cells of the patient's clone. This argument has earned "therapeutic cloning" widespread public support. But the feasibility of this project is almost nil. After more than a decade of research using animal embryonic stem cells from cloning, scientists have failed to show any significant cures. The track record looks even worse when compared to the relatively new field of adult stem cell research, in which clinical trials in humans have achieved successes that the scientists themselves describe as "miraculous" and "astonishing."

Numerous comments concerning the practical obstacles to "therapeutic" cloning – mainly from the words of researchers themselves – have been collected at /prolife/issues/bioethic/cloning/clonprob11404.shtml.

To give just one example: Last year, the president and CEO of the world's leading biotechnology company in embryonic stem cell research candidly appraised the prospects of successful cures through cloning:

"The efficiency of making a stem cell line from an embryo made by nuclear transfer [cloning] is vanishingly small, and you're going back to the case-by-case, individualized-therapy story again, with enormous costs. The whole idea is to make this therapy internationally available, broadly. Nuclear-transfer procedures just are never going to get us there" (Thomas Okarma, President and CEO of the Geron Corporation, quoted in E. Jonietz, "Cloning, Stem Cells, and Medicine's Future," Technology Review, June 2003, pp. 70-71 at p. 70).

There is another reason why cloning for research is still pursued aggressively by some scientists, apart from their desire to push the limits of man's ability to understand and control everything in nature: the desire to create large batches of identical embryonic humans for drug evaluations and basic research. This is the unspoken agenda, because the biotechnology industry knows the public is not likely to be sympathetic with this rationale for "farming" and destroying hundreds or thousands of human lives.

The Impact on Efforts to Create "Babies" by Cloning

Science's publication of the South Korean cloning experiment includes a do-it-yourself instruction manual that is sure to encourage cloning cults like the Raelians and fertility mavericks like Dr. Severino Antinori and Panos Zavos, who periodically claims (without evidence) that a child he cloned has been born or successfully implanted in a client's womb.

Hwang and Moon instruct them in exactly how their new procedure for removing the egg's nucleus – gently squeezing it out of a tiny hole in the egg's outer membrane – greatly enhances success, and they demonstrate that cumulus cells (which surround eggs in the ovary) are a superior source for adult cell nuclei (rather than a skin cell, for example). Even Dr. Hwang admitted in a February 13 press interview that his cloning technique "cannot be separated from reproductive cloning."

A Total Ban on Cloning Is Needed Now

South Korea already bans cloning human embryos for babies, and bans selling human eggs. These provisions of law did nothing to prevent the acquisition of 242 eggs (without financial compensation) destruction of 213 cloned humans, or the development of cloned embryos up to the usual time of implantation in a womb (6 days). The final step – actual transfer of the embryo to a womb – has been done hundreds of thousands of times in the past three decades by in vitro fertilization clinics. That is the easy part. And a healthy cloned human embryo is not readily distinguishable from an embryo conceived normally or through IVF. Short of stationing "pregnancy police" round-the-clock to scrutinize every location where cloning may take place, a ban on creating cloned babies could be enforced only by mandating the abortion of the cloned humans – a preposterous violation of human rights.

Dr. Zavos told U.S. News that the birth of a human clone "is inevitable, especially now that anyone can open a science journal and read the recipe for human cloning. He vows to push ahead with his own efforts. 'Banning it?' Zavos says wryly. 'That time has passed a long time ago. The genie is out of the bottle'" (N. Boyce, supra, p. 43).

He may be wrong in that assessment. Seoul National University, which employs the South Korean scientists, has applied for a worldwide patent on their human cloning technique and on the resulting embryonic stem cells. As chilling as this prospect is – that a university will gain financially from the intentional creation and killing of humans in research – it is one means of controlling use of the technique. A total ban on cloning in the U.S. and worldwide, under a U.N. treaty proposal to be debated this fall, would discourage all but rogue scientists from pursuing this avenue of research.

Lessons to be Learned

Unless the Congress and legislative bodies of other countries act decisively and soon, it will be increasingly difficult to restrain the use of embryonic humans as research material with no intrinsic dignity or worth. No basic research, no hypothetical cure is worth taking a human life. Many human consciences are already clouded on this point. Dr. Hwang told a New York Times interviewer that "almost half of our research team is Christian, including Dr. Moon, who is Methodist. At the lab, we have discussed why we have to do this work. We have asked ourselves, Is there any way to achieve the treatment of some incurable diseases without therapeutic cloning? The answer is, It is a scientist's responsibility to do this research because it is for a good purpose" (C. Dreifus, "2 Friends, 242 Eggs and a Breakthrough," NY Times on-line edition, 2/17/04).

"The end justifies the means" is not a Christian doctrine. "You shall not kill" is. Traditionally, utilitarian philosophy has not ruled mainstream medical ethics, and to the extent that it was adopted by the German medical establishment, it was thoroughly denounced at the Nuremburg trials.

Dr. Hwang does not even directly answer his question: Is there any way to achieve the treatment of some incurable diseases without therapeutic cloning? If he and his colleagues had not been working from before dawn to midnight 7 days a week for the past several years, they may have found the answer to that question in several hundred medical journal articles showing that the cures are likely to come from the use of adult stem cells and other novel therapies. And none of these require killing one life, or 213 lives, to save another.