About-face for advocates of `therapeutic cloning'

May 21, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - A year ago, Americans heard about the amazing promise of stem-cell research. Someday, we were told, it could vanquish cancer. Cure Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Let paraplegics walk again.

There was only one problem: The stem cells would have to come from human embryos produced by in vitro fertilization. Taking the cells would mean destroying the embryos.

This presented a bit of a dilemma. Our representatives in Washington debated the science and the morality, and a consensus emerged in favor of such research. Even some "pro-life" politicians who oppose abortion rights agreed. Eventually, President Bush elected to allow federal funding for work involving 64 colonies of embryo cells that were already in existence.

His policy didn't go as far as most advocates wanted. They pointed out that more embryos are created every day in fertilization clinics than will ever be implanted in wombs. They thought it unconscionable, as paralysis victim Christopher Reeve put it, to let these surplus embryos "be tossed away as so much garbage when they could help save thousands of lives."

But for them, Mr. Bush's decision was at least a partial victory. Stem-cell research on embryos was allowed to go forward.

Today, we are once again hearing about the potential of stem-cell research. But apparently, the promise held by embryos from fertility clinics, so dazzling just 12 months ago, has dimmed. This time, the potential advances are said to come from cloned embryos.

Everyone in Washington wants to ban "reproductive cloning" - creating embryos destined for implantation, gestation and birth. But many people in Washington want to allow "therapeutic cloning" - creating embryos purely for medical research.

Last year's debate was about whether to condone the dissection of embryos that would be destroyed anyway. This year's debate is about whether to destroy embryos that wouldn't have been created otherwise. And it's revealing to contemplate how the arguments have evolved.

"Private companies are creating embryos specifically for stem cells, and I think that's a very bad idea," said Sen. Arlen Specter then, as he endorsed research on existing embryos. The Pennsylvania Republican is now sponsoring a bill that would allow what he once opposed: the creation of embryos specifically for stem-cell research.

"I oppose creating embryos for therapeutic reasons," asserted Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Despite that long-ago declaration, the Maryland Democrat is co-sponsoring Mr. Specter's bill.

Mr. Reeve, who stressed the folly of refusing to use embryos that would be destroyed anyway, now wants embryos created precisely so they can be destroyed.

What has happened is simple. In the previous debate, everyone agreed we needed this type of medical inquiry, but only within clear limits. Now, the first time those limits put any sort of constraint on science, we find they are intolerable.

The about-face of Mr. Specter and others isn't obvious, because they take some trouble to conceal the reality of what they want. The advocates all insist they are opposed to the cloning of human beings. But the process they favor is the same as cloning, in that it involves the creation of an embryo with the genetic material of one person rather than two.

The only difference is that in reproductive cloning, the embryo would be implanted in a womb and carried to term. Mr. Specter's bill would allow cloning as long as the embryo is not implanted. Cloning a human being is allowed. But letting it live is strictly forbidden.

These embryos are to exist for our benefit, not for their own. We will be sanctioning the creation of life solely for its destruction - something that stem-cell research advocates said last year they couldn't countenance.

Currently, cloned embryos can't live more than a few days unless they're implanted in a womb, which Mr. Specter's bill would forbid. Scientists say the seven days of development an embryo can undergo outside the womb is enough for their needs.

Researchers are already working to develop an artificial womb that would allow a fetus to mature outside a woman's body. And someday, almost inevitably, some scientist will say the seven-day limit is too tight.

If we can justify carving up week-old embryos, can we not justify carving up recognizable fetuses? Do we tell a Parkinson's victim that he has to die because we suddenly have moral qualms about killing embryos?

You can guess the answer. Supporters of therapeutic cloning say a sturdy legal barrier will let us realize the benefits of medical research without opening the door to abuses. Where have we heard that before?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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