A timeout on cloning embryos

April 23, 2002|By Richard Hayes

OAKLAND, Calif. - The U.S. Senate is set to vote on human cloning within the next few weeks. Unfortunately, a polarized political climate and lack of political leadership could block urgently needed legislation.

The great majority of people intuitively understand that the creation of cloned children would be an affront to human dignity and autonomy, would open the door to even more dangerous forms of eugenic manipulation, would serve no good purpose and needs to be banned.

But the same techniques that could be used to create cloned children can also be used to create human embryos for medical research.

Should this be allowed? People opposed to creating cloned children can differ in good faith about creating human embryos for research.

It's a complex issue that engages many moral, social, political and other values.

To date, the politics of cloning have been dominated by two groups: biomedical scientists and anti-abortion conservatives.

Not surprisingly, most scientists support research cloning and most conservatives oppose it.

Given this lineup, it's tempting to frame the cloning issue as the latest extension of the abortion wars. But this is not the case.

Many pro-choice feminists and women's health advocates fear that embryo cloning could lead to an exploitative market in women's eggs and could otherwise turn reproduction into a commodity.

Many environmentalists see cloning as another potentially dangerous technology being approved before long-range consequences are considered.

Civil rights and human rights leaders are wary of a new, high-tech eugenics that could tear human society apart at its foundations.

If embryo cloning were allowed at this time, it would be done mostly in private labs not now subject to meaningful federal regulation. This arrangement invites abuse. Our experience with fertility clinic scandals, including those in which physicians deliberately misled women about the origins of implanted embryos, should be warning enough.

When the Senate last voted on human cloning in 1998, heated contention over research cloning blocked passage of any cloning legislation at all. Four years later, the question of cloning human embryos is even more unsettled than it was then. A deadlock once more would be a tragedy, and dangerous. The only victors would be those rogue fertility researchers who can't wait to set up their human cloning labs and get to work.

Is there a way to avoid this? Yes, but it would require political leadership from all sides.

First, Congress should pass a law banning the creation of cloned children. On this point there's nearly universal agreement, and action is long overdue.

Second, Congress should enact a moratorium on the use of cloning to create human embryos for research. This would be a compromise between the permanent ban that the conservatives want and the unrestricted green light that the researchers want. It would be a timeout, a chance to lower the level of contention and catch our breath.

The moratorium could be lifted after a set period of time, or upon specified conditions being met. Embryonic stem-cell research on cures for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other diseases does not require cloning, at least not yet, and would continue. Research already underway on alternatives to cloning would also proceed. If any one of these alternatives proved successful, humanity could be spared a long, ugly and divisive conflict.

If it eventually became clear that the use of cloning techniques would be needed to achieve important medical advances, and if laws banning the creation of cloned children were firmly in place, and if a strong regulatory system to guard against the theft or deliberate misuse of cloned human embryos were established, then the case for proceeding with embryo cloning would be much stronger than it is right now.

To agree to a timeout on cloning embryos for research, both sides in the struggle would need to be willing to take some risks.

Conservatives would need to acknowledge that a majority of Americans might be willing to proceed with embryo cloning once the need is clear and controls are in place.

And scientists would need to acknowledge that Americans might demand a tighter framework of social accountability for genetic research, given the potential for real abuse that the new genetic technologies hold.

Richard Hayes is executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a nonprofit public affairs center concerned with new human genetic technologies.

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