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Jewish World Review May 7, 2002 / 25 Iyar, 5762

Dennis Byrne

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Consumer Reports

Why turn a blind eye to promising alternatives to human cloning? | Sometimes, all the bad things happening smother the good news. But here is stunningly happy news that should have made every front page: Scientists can take a part of you and turn it into a cure. Specifically, scientists have converted an adult skin cell into a cell that can treat a particular disease. This has great promise for treating diseases like diabetes, immune deficiencies, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries.

Scientists from the biotech start-up Nucleotech LLC reported last week in the journal Nature Biotechnology that they reconfigured skin cells to behave as if they were immune system cells, raising hopes of grow-your-own transplants. They created these designer cells by punching holes in mature skin cells and bathing them in extracts of the immune cells, in effect washing out the cell's regulatory factors with new ones. The usual cautions apply: This is only experimental. It could be some time before it has a practical application.

Still, this is joyful news. Well, not everywhere. In fact, in some circles, it's almost as if it never happened, and never could happen. The reason appears to be that it has run into a public relations juggernaut that claims that the best, if not the only, route to this kind of medical treatment is human cloning. With near-religious fervor, the argument is made that the best source of master cells for making designer cells is the undifferentiated stem cells taken from cloned embryos.

That's the debate in the U.S. Senate as it gets close to voting on legislation that would entirely ban human cloning, or, alternatively, allow it for only "therapeutic" reasons. Hollywood personalities, politicians from the right and the left and even the fictional "Harry and Louise" couple used in ads to defeat the Clinton health-care package are on the side of human cloning. They claim the compassionate high ground, insisting that cloning is the faster way to cures. So, they argue, we all must support legislation that would allow scientists to clone human embryonic cells for the purpose of killing them for research, but not for the purpose of growing them into human beings.

What they fail to mention is the fact that the science is far from settled on the best source of stem cells. What they fail to acknowledge is the principle that if there are two ways to get to the same goal, and one is less morally objectionable than the other, then in conscience we should take the less morally objectionable path. Especially when the alternative route is more direct and, as scientists say of admired discoveries, "elegantly simple." Most Americans agree. In a poll conducted by The Polling Co. for Stop Human Cloning, a grass-roots advocacy group, Americans rejected human cloning of embryos, 59 percent to 26 percent, even if it is for the purpose for curing cancer and other major diseases. No problem, the pro-cloning groups said, we'll just rename it. Henceforth creating embryos shall be called "somatic cell nuclear transfer. It's only cloning if the embryo is grown into a real human." Never mind that the embryos to be used for "therapeutic" purposes are created the same way and are identical to those that would be grown into adults.

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a physician who treats patients with many of these diseases, called this distinction between clones used for research and clones meant to grow into real humans "pretty close to hogwash." Yet some senators introduced a bill last week that would permit such a distinction, thereby allowing research cloning. Thankfully, the House last year decisively rejected all cloning, 249-to-178, and President Bush recently repeated his opposition.

Why oppose it? I won't get into all the arguments here about when human life begins. But if you can accept the idea that an embryo is at least nascent human life, then you ought to be worried about creating what Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, called "an underclass of sub-humans . . . whose parts can be cannibalized and scavenged for the benefit of others." If you are not troubled by the idea that human life should be created for the sole purpose of serving others (this used to be called slavery in America and the Nazis used to do experiments on mentally and physically disabled people deemed to have no other value), then we don't have much to discuss.

JWR contributor Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and public affairs consultant. Comment by clicking here.

04/16/02: Callous parents deaf to calls of common sense
02/15/02: When caring becomes sinister
01/25/02: The unreliable crystal balls of analysts
01/17/02: The curse of 'do-something' pols
01/09/02: Political moderation is for the indifferent, uninformed or undecided

© 2002, Dennis Byrne