Congress’ ongoing debate about whether to permit cloning of human embryos for medical research is just the tip of a very deep iceberg involving profound questions of ethics and the possibilities of biology.
[IMGCAP(1)]This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first announcement of the discovery of DNA, the genetic “key to life.” This month, too, researchers announced they had completed mapping the entire human genome.
Scientists and the biotechnology industry argue that the discoveries promise huge beneficial strides in medicine — the cure of terrible diseases and a steady extension of the human lifespan.
At the same time, some ethicists foresee potential disaster — a “Brave New World” of genetically altered and pharmacologically controlled “post-humans.” Or, possibly, a planet so crowded with old people refusing to die that they prevent their grandchildren from being born.
I’ve been able to peer at both visions of the future as the moderator of a series of Webcasted debates jointly sponsored by the Alliance for Aging Research and the American Academy of Sciences that can be accessed at www.sagecrossroads.net.
The latest debate this week pitted Dr. Michael West, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology Inc., which has cloned human embryos for research, against syndicated columnist (and medical school graduate) Charles Krauthammer, an opponent of cloning and a member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics.
Krauthammer differs from many religious opponents of cloning, including those in Congress, in not contending that life begins at the moment of conception and that to destroy an embryo in research is akin to murder.
That is the position of Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), sponsors of legislation to ban cloning both for reproduction and research, and Bush.
Weldon’s bill passed the House, 241 to 155, on Feb. 27. The vote on an amendment to permit research cloning failed, 231-174.
It isn’t clear when the Senate will take up Brownback’s measure or a rival sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would permit research cloning.
Cloning — termed “somatic cell nuclear transfer” by its advocates — is a procedure involving hollowing out the nucleus of a woman’s egg cell and filling it with cellular material from a donor.
The resulting embryo, if introduced into a woman’s uterus, would produce a child genetically identical to the donor — his or her clone.
Scientists such as West agree that so-called reproductive cloning should be illegal. Instead, they want to use the resulting embryos for research — within 14 days removing their inner core to produce stem cells, which theoretically can develop into any kind of tissue in the body.
These scientists argue that stem cells could be used to cure such diseases as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, severe burns and spinal cord injuries.
Krauthammer argued that research cloning, conducted as an industry, would lead to the creation of thousands of embryos, some of which would be misused to produce cloned babies.
He said, too, that researchers would not stop at 14 days’ development of an embryo and might well slide down a “slippery slope” toward harvesting organs from months-old fetuses.
But his principal argument was that “deliberately cloning embryos for certain destruction, even for a worthy purpose, means the launching of an entire industry of embryo manufacture.”
“It means the commercialization and commodification of the human embryo, making it nothing more than a means to someone else’s end. I don’t think that an embryo is a person, but it’s not a thing. Creating embryos for destruction crosses a moral frontier.”
West countered that Krauthammer was basing his arguments on “fear” akin to those raised in the past against using anesthesia in childbirth, blood transfusions and in vitro fertilization.
“We should face the future with courage and act for the benefit of our fellow human beings,” he said, arguing that it’s entirely possible to forbid development of an embryo beyond 14 days, eliminating the danger of a slippery slope.
It’s been a consistent theme in the Web debate series that scientists and libertarians emphasize the hope residing in future biological research and ethicists emphasize the danger.
In the first debate, Ron Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine, argued that “the defining conflict of the 21st century will be the battle over life and death.”
“On the one side stand the partisans of mortality, who counsel humanity to quietly accept our morbid fate and go gentle into that good night.
“On the other is the party of life, who yearn to extend the enjoyment of healthy life to as many as possible for as long as possible.”
The ethicists on the other side include Johns Hopkins University Professor Francis Fukuyama and author Bill McKibben, who argued that unrestricted genetic engineering could lead to the alteration of what it means to be “human.”
Indeed, Professor Gregory Stock of UCLA argued that through gene selection and alteration not only to eliminate disease, but to produce children with higher IQs, less depression, superior athletic ability and an indefinite life span.
Such opportunities and dangers still are well into the future. But the cloning debate is happening now. If you permit research cloning to cure diseases, do you inevitably slide into the manufacture of “post-human” super-people? That’s for government to decide. Let’s hope its up to the moral challenge.