Perils, promise of cloning

Human embryos: Enormous science and moral issues need full public discussion, clear policy.

November 27, 2001

IN CLONING the first human embryo, U.S. researchers achieved limited technical success but spawned limitless public debate of the ethical and biological implications.

The breakthrough by Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts lasted a few hours, produced barely six cells, and some experts deny it was a true embryo. Yet the work shows that a single cell from a human can be stimulated into forming an embryo, the foundation for producing a baby.

The intent was not to create a cloned human being, but to create embryos to produce young stem cells that can be coaxed to develop into any kind of human tissue.

Human therapeutic cloning could speed the development of replacement tissues and organs to treat diabetes, cancer, heart and Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries.

It is an alternative to use of frozen embryos created by in vitro fertilization. Patients' cloned embryo cells would share their genetic material and be less likely to be rejected by their immune systems.

But the process involves making and destroying cloned embryos to harvest the stem cells. That same controversy -- over whether embryos are humans -- shrouds the entire moral debate over stem cell research.

It also raises the nightmarish prospect of creating human beings solely as sources of spare parts, and of people deliberately duplicating themselves to perpetuate their existence.

Support for stem cell therapy research is growing, even as President Bush has restricted federal funding for a limited number of existing cell colonies. Cloning can be a promising source of cells. Opponents see the process as morally dehumanizing.

Cloning of the sheep Dolly in 1997 heralded a new era in biomedicine and bioethics. Five other species have since been cloned. All of which underscores the urgency for a national policy. The president's Council on Bioethics, to be named soon, may be a good place to begin this important public discussion.

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