Britain, meanwhile, is poised to allow cloning of humans

By Paul Tuns

U.S. President Bill Clinton issued an executive order August 23 reversing a prohibition on the federal funding of research performed on human embryos, a sure boon to those that see a promise of cures for various diseases in the deaths of the tiniest unborn children.

In the last few years, research into human stem cells – precursor cells that can give rise to multiple tissue types – has held great promise for the cure or relief of many diseases from cancer and diabetes to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, much of this progress resulted from stem cells harvested from embryos discarded from fertility clinics and aborted fetuses.

The National Institutes of Health calls the potential medical benefits of embryonic stem cells “compelling and worthy of pursuit.” Clinton urged those morally opposed to such research to consider the “potentially staggering benefits.”

John Morrow, a biochemist at Texas Tech University’s Health Sciences Center, dismisses the concerns of pro-lifers. “These guidelines are about the best and most reasonable compromise possible,” he said. “Those who say a little stem cell in a petri dish is the same as a six-year-old girl in kindergarten must know in their hearts that’s not true. But they probably see these guidelines as arguing against the right-to-life position, and for them, no compromise is acceptable.”

Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas questioned Clinton’s suggestion to put aside moral and ethical concerns, saying the “benefits [are] at the expense of our humanity and moral being.” The new guidelines permit funding only for frozen embryos that are collected through in-vitro fertilization, which many in the scientific community and abortion supporters claim will only be discarded anyway. But opponents of the guidelines say they are not being discarded in any great numbers as fertility clinics fear lawsuits from parents down the road.

Critics of the new guidelines also question the timing of the announcement considering recent developments in adult stem-cell research. David Prentice, adjunct professor of medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine and professor of life sciences at Indiana State University, told The Interim adult stem-cell research has been clinically tested with incredible results, unlike embryonic stem cell research which merely shows potential benefits. He wonders why there is such demand for the former considering its ethical problems and lack of clinical success.

Prentice said scientists “don’t want limits placed on them” and “are willing to act like God” so “if you don’t admit it is a human being, of course you’d do this kind of research.”

Right now, Prentice says, “embryonic [stem cell research] is the darling.” Despite the success of using adult stem cells in treating patients whose immune systems have been hampered by cancer therapy and the use of bone marrow stem cells to create liver, bone and cartilage cells, “all you hear about is the promise of embryonic stem-cells.” But that is all it is – promise.

While he understands patients groups and some in the scientific community are desperate for cures to various diseases, Prentice says, “It is not acceptable to take one set of human lives to benefit another.” He said this utilitarian view of human life could lead to the eventual use of paraplegics for research purposes. He worries about a “society which takes for granted that some lives are worth more than others.”

The Clinton announcement could spur Canada to allow similar research. The August 25National Post reported that Dr. Alan Bernstein, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, said Canada risks losing researchers to the U.S. unless the government clarifies the legal status of embryo research. Since 1995, Canadian researchers have agreed to a voluntary moratorium, but Bernstein added, “In the absence of any kind of guidelines, Canadian researchers may feel free to go ahead” to keep up with advances made elsewhere. He called on the federal government to do what it has long promised it would, namely introduce legislation on the new reproductive technologies that would cover everything from rules on cloning to clarifying the legal status of embryos.

The need for legislation governing new reproductive technologies has never been greater. The week before Clinton’s announcement, the Donaldson report in Britain suggested allowing cloning for therapeutic research.

All the recommendations made by Professor Liam Donaldson, the Government Chief Medical Officer, were accepted by the government, including the recommendation that “research using embryos (whether created by in vitro fertilisation or cloning) to increase understanding about human disease and disorders and their cell-based treatments should be permitted.” Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government has promised to enact legislation to this effect.

In Germany, where reproductive technology issues are also being debated, Hubert Hueppe, vice-chairman of a German parliamentary commission on bioethics, said the British plan of therapeutic cloning is worse than reproductive cloning because cultivating stem cells originating from human embryos means “humans would be created with the sole purpose of being killed.” Another member of the committee, Monika Knoche, called the British proposal the “usage, exploitation and discarding” of human life.

Prof. Prentice described the barbarism of the proposal to allow therapeutic cloning in Britain in stark terms: “You will clone me and kill my identical twin to help me.” He said the necessity to use one’s own cells is resolved by the use of adult stem cells.

Fortunately, Prentice does not expect the proposals on both sides of the Atlantic to hamper adult stem-cell research. Indeed, if even greater scientific finds in the field are made in the near future, the matter may be decided in favour of non-lethal forms of mining stem-cells.