February 24, 2004

U.S. at standstill over cloning debate

Last week, two South Korean scientists announced they had cloned human blastocysts (embryos in their initial stages) to generate embryonic stem cells, touted as leading to potential therapies for many debilitating conditions, including diabetesand Parkinson's disease. In doing this, the Korean scientists have revived a serious debate in the science world, as scientists, politicians, and bioethicists continue to grapple with the biological and moral issues that one little embryo contains.

Has human civilization entered Brave New World, the 1931 classic novel which showed a dystopian world in which the government controls reproduction? Are men going to be mass-produced off of a conveyor belt like cars?

The goal of the Korean scientists was to clone stem cells, not to clone an entire human. They took an egg and inserted a donor nucleus to create an embryo bearing stem cells, which then can be guided through development into any different cell type.

Human cloning brings up serious issues to which I can understand the ethical and biological opposition. But the process the Korean scientists performed was to further stem cell research. Many scientists predict that stem cell research will allow us to grow human cells that can be artificially modified to become specialized tissues to replace damaged cells in humans.

The issue at hand is that U.S. politicians seem to lump stem cell research, made possible by cloning, with actual human cloning. But the two scientific processes have different ends: the improvement of human life for stem cell research and the creation of human life for cloning. Although human cloning carries implications that are scientifically and ethically reprehensible, stem cell research should be allowed because of the innumerable benefits it could provide mankind. I know I go against the opinion of the President and many Christian denominations, including my own, but stem cell research is a promising field in which the United States is falling behind.

The center of the issue for Americans is the embryo, and whether or not it should be considered a life. But think about this: if someone were dying of Parkinson's disease, and scientists had the opportunity to cure his or her disease using the applications of stem cell research, what would be the better choice? Experimenting with embryos that haven't experienced consciousness, so that this Parkinson's patient can possibly live, or to see the Parkinson's patient slowly suffer and die so as not to sacrifice the embryo, which would not have necessarily been brought into existence? Either way, a life will perish. I believe, though, that the more pragmatic choice would be in favor of the Parkinson's patient.

There is a theory among opponents of cloning that allowing even stem cell research would thrust science onto a "slippery slope" towards cloning. But unless humans see cloning as inevitable, and unless people actually want to go to the Brave New World scenario, with proper regulation this should not come to pass.

Should Congress ban all forms of cloning (they have been close¬ólast year, a cloning ban was barely rejected by the Senate), it would have damaging affects on American medicine and society. The Bush administration policy already forbids federal funding of all cloning research, even if the projects are intended solely to create stem cells like the South Korean researchers did. It could lead to the U.S. falling far behind other countries in medical research. It could force many talented biologists in the country to go elsewhere, such as Britain and China, to continue their research, creating a brain drain in American medicine. The ban could also force renegade doctors or controversial organizations to go underground to accomplish their cloning experiments, and perhaps create more ethical atrocities than if the research had been supported by the government.

This issue goes far beyond embryos. Some anti-abortion senators are for stem cell research, such as Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and, surprisingly, the late Strom Thurmond (R-SC). They see that stem cell research is actually a pro-life choice¬ósaving current lives by conquering diseases.

Perhaps it is my job in a neurobiology laboratory that makes me favor cloning. Or it could also be that I have had members of my family die of cancer and diabetes, diseases that could benefit from stem cell research. In any case, stem cell research holds so many possibilities that it is imperative scientists should pursue it, and it is important for Congress not to be so narrow-minded.