Jewish World Review Oct. 10, 2005 / 7 Tishrei, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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The next little step: Human cloning | Once again the ethical markers are being moved. What was once the stuff of sci-fi novels — the creation of human life in order to experiment on it — is being described as a moral imperative.

How can that be? Because it's being done for a greater good. That way (and only that way!) lies the cure for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and diabetes and athlete's foot and who knows what other ills.

This kind of human cloning is billed as "therapeutic" as opposed to "reproductive" cloning, which is the kind that would be used to produce designer babies with custom-made genetic characteristics. So far that limit is being respected. So far.

"Therapeutic" cloning isn't therapeutic for the embryo that's created; it is destroyed at an early stage in order to extract its stem cells for research purposes.

What about using adult stem cells instead? Or stem cells derived from umbilical-cord blood? They don't present the kind of ethical problems associated with the exploitation of embryonic stem cells, and they're already being used in the treatment of scores of diseases.

Stem cells derived from the youngest human embryos are supposed to be the most versatile of all (totipotent), but only in theory. In experiments to date, they've produced mainly weird tumors.

So why not concentrate on stem cells from sources other than human embryos? Or creating such cells without having to create human embryos first? That's now possible, too.

Nope, those alternatives would be entirely too ethical. Only this one approach — creating and then destroying these embryos — will do. Why? Is it because only this one approach — this one fruit in the Garden — has been forbidden to us so far?

Human nature doesn't change very much, does it?

Cloning embryos is definitely the next big thing. Scientific experimenters will doubtless create a demand for a constant stream of thousands of them. Hence the references to embryo farms.

And soon enough fetus farms. For the next step will be allowing the embryos to grow into fetuses for research purposes. See "The Organ Factory: The Case for Harvesting Older Human Embryos" by Will Saletan, who writes for Slate magazine.

Wh-a-a-t? Experimentations on fetuses? Surely that's unimaginable in a humane society like ours. Just as millions of legally permitted abortions a year were once unimaginable. Just as assisted suicide programs were once unimaginable.

There's no risk of all this getting out of hand, we're assured, because all these artificially created human embryos will be destroyed as soon as they've served their scientific purpose. Extract their stem cells, throw the remains in the autoclave and forget it. Then research on the extracted stem cells will lead to all kinds of marvelous discoveries that'll revolutionize the practice of medicine. Happy Ending, Close Curtain.

Of course certain ethical standards, like experimentation on human life without informed consent, will also have to be tossed aside. But we can safely leave such matters to the scientists and legislators; they know best. Or so we're told.

One of the U.S. senators who's signed on to this project is Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln. She emphasizes the limits that would be placed on the human cloning to be allowed under Senate Bill 1520:

"I believe it is important that we establish clear ethical guidelines," she says assuringly. "I believe human reproductive cloning is wrong and should not be permitted under any circumstances. I support Senate Bill 1520 for this reason."

But how establish "clear ethical guidelines" for research that by its very nature crosses an ethical line — experimentation on human life? Indeed, such life would be created for no purpose other than experimentation on it.

You could have seen this coming from the time cloning human beings became a scientific possibility. The President's Council on Bioethics certainly did. To quote its report three years ago: "We should not be self-deceived about our ability to set limits on the exploitation of nascent human life. What disturbs us today we quickly or eventually get used to; yesterday's repugnance gives way to tomorrow's endorsement. A society that already tolerates the destruction of fetuses in the second and third trimesters will hardly be horrified by embryo and fetus farming (including in animal wombs), if this should turn out to be helpful in the cure of dreaded diseases."

Fear not, the sponsors of SB 1520 assure all of us doubters. SB 1520 will actually outlaw human cloning. In the Washington tradition of fair labeling, this bill is formally entitled the Human Cloning Ban Act of 2005. Because it would ban implanting the cloned embryo "into a uterus or the functional equivalent of a uterus." But it wouldn't ban cloning the embryo in the first place.

Magicians use smoke and mirrors; legislators use definitions.

SB 1520 defines human cloning only as implanting the embryo, not creating it.

It is not these senators' knowledge of what is biologically or politically possible that one questions. They know their embryology. What's questionable is their knowledge of human nature — their sublime confidence that the unlimited ambition, greed or just curiosity of man can be so easily limited.

We are being told that, if we allow scientists to take just this one step, they will never take the next. If we will blur this one bright ethical line — No Human Cloning! — then all these scientists and entrepreneurs will scrupulously obey a much vaguer line somewhere farther down this all too familiar slope. And all the Young Frankensteins out there itching to experiment on human fetuses will back off.

Sure they will.

I never before thought of politicians as a particularly naive breed, but after hearing Sen. Lincoln repeat these assurances about the ethical nature of embryonic stem cell research, I may have to change my mind.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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