The Scientists Speak: No Human Cloning

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Mark Siegler of the University of Chicago speaks at the NAS panel meeting

The cloning issue has been debated extensively in the politically charged hallways of Capitol Hill. Now a new, wholly unfamiliar perspective enters the fray — cool, calm, objective and, not coincidentally, scientific.

A panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences issued its recommendations on cloning regulations Friday morning, prompting renewed speculation that all hope may not be lost for the prospect of therapeutic (or research-oriented) embryonic cloning.

While the NAS is in favor of a ban on all reproductive human cloning (i.e. creating a child), citing safety concerns, the prestigious group calls for work to continue in the field of embryonic cloning, where scientists create embryos in order to extract stem cells for use in medical research. Stem cells, of course, remain a political hot potato, simultaneously sparking high hopes of cures and treatments among researchers and advocates but horrifying many pro-life groups, which view embryos as human life and the extraction of stem cells as the destruction of life.

The NAS recommendations come just in time for Congress to take up the topic again; debate is raging once again between the House and the Bush administration, both of which favor a full ban, and the Senate, where there is ample support for therapeutic cloning.

Will the cool head of science make politicians' jobs a bit easier? Where, and when, will this debate end? Hoping for some answers, spoke with Mark Rothstein, director of the Bioethics Institute at the University of Louisville medical school, and a professor of law and medicine.

Will the NAS decision make a difference in congressional deliberations?
Rothstein: I think Congress has a very high regard for the NAS as an institution, but not necessarily for everything they do. So I doubt Congress would feel in any way bound by what the NAS recommends on this issue.

Are you surprised by the NAS recommendations?
I think the decision is actually pretty representative of mainstream opinion. If you asked a whole series of bio-ethicists and other scientists, you'd find an overwhelming number of them feel exactly the way the NAS panel apparently does.

So which point of view will prevail here, the scientific or the political?
I can't say. This is a very political charged issue. I did get involved to a very minor degree as Congress was debating the cloning issue, and I noticed that whenever you talk about cloning or embryonic stem cell research it very quickly stops being about science and becomes a right to life versus pro-choice issue.

Can you venture a prediction as to how this debate will end?
I am very pessimistic about our ability to reach a reasonable decision on this topic. And I base that pessimism on my attempts to find some kind of common ground among members of Congress. In terms of where we're heading, I think a fair guess is it will end in a stalemate. And I say that because the people who want to ban cloning don't want to stop the ban at reproductive cloning — they want to extend the ban to cover embryonic cloning and therapeutic cloning as well. They are not disposed to compromise, and of course the same can be said for the people on the other side of the coin as well.

The NAS wants a five-year ban on reproductive cloning, after which time the subject will be revisited. Is it really possible that things will have changed so much in five years as to merit a totally new review?
It's possible that the safety issues will be different, and that's what everyone seems to be interested in. I personally don't want to see the whole issue tied up in whether it's safe — because that means we're ducking and ignoring some the fundamental issues. We need to be able to answer real questions about reproductive cloning, not simply speculate about essentially unknowable safety concerns. We're not asking whether reproductive cloning is consistent or inconsistent with the common moral background of this country.

Is it likely to be harmful psychologically to children created by the procedure? Is reproductive cloning just the first step on the path to eugenics?
We need to try to develop some defensibly lines of demarcation for complex genetic debates. We can't hide behind the safety issue. Because then, when some panel decides there are no more safety concerns, we're going to be flat out of objections — and we never will have really talked about cloning at all.