by Richard M. Doerflinger
January 13, 2006
South Korean researchers led by Dr. Woo-Suk Hwang, the only scientists in the world to show they had cloned human embryos and derived embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from them, are now known to have perpetrated a massive fraud. Contrary to past disclaimers, the team paid numerous women, and even pressured a female researcher, to provide human eggs for cloning experiments; they failed to produce even one stem cell line from hundreds of attempts; and they covered up their failure by falsifying two major articles in a prestigious U.S. science journal.
The first conclusion to be drawn from this is scientific: As the Washington Post said January 10, "the highly touted field of embryonic stem cell research is years behind where scientists thought it was." After eight years of effort around the world to clone human embryos, no one has achieved even the first step in using this procedure for human treatments (so-called "therapeutic cloning"). The biotechnology lobby in the U.S. has held since 2001 that such cloning is essential to realizing the clinical promise of ESCs generally.
A second lesson is political. To win public support and government funding, ESC advocates have long made hyped claims and exaggerated promises. In short, they acted like political hucksters instead of scientists, and now are beginning to pay the price. Americans, too, have been bamboozled by promises of "miracle cures" around the corner. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported September 30, now that California voters have been persuaded by such promises to put themselves $6 billion into debt for a huge ESC project, they are finding that treatments are "nowhere close, maybe decades away."
Some cloning supporters even try to blame the Bush Administration for the hoax: Because the President didn't fund "limited" cloning, they say, the landmark research was done in another country with no safeguards. But South Korea had legal and professional "safeguards," which were violated for what was seen as a greater good. Blaming this Administration for the scandal in Korea is like blaming opponents of capital punishment for beheadings in Iraq.
The third and most important lesson is moral. Cloning advocates have devoted themselves to a utilitarian ethic: The end justifies the means. Moral concerns about the sanctity of human life, and the indignity of creating new lives in the lab simply to destroy them, were brushed aside. Even if human embryos are lives in a biological sense, we were told, they are not meaningful persons – and they must be sacrificed to help born patients who really matter. Ironically, born patients (and adult women, exploited for their eggs) have joined embryos in being victimized by this agenda.
We should not be surprised when an ethic that dismisses "Thou shalt not kill" in the quest for cures applies the same calculus to "Thou shalt not bear false witness." If the embryo's "merely biological" life can be trampled to benefit more valuable lives, can "merely factual" truth stand in the way of the higher truth of progress?
By demeaning life, we learn to demean truth, rendering science itself meaningless. Whether scientists and lawmakers will learn this important lesson remains to be seen.
Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.