by Richard M. Doerflinger
February 20, 1998
Like many Star Wars fans, I have been eagerly awaiting George Lucas's upcoming "prequel" to his saga of the young Luke Skywalker. The new movie will show how Luke's father and his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, became involved in "the Clone Wars."
Little did I know that the clone wars would actually start this year.
An initial skirmish was fought to a standstill in the U.S. Senate on February 11, when Senators Chris Bond (R-MO) and Bill Frist (R-TN) tried to pass their bill to ban human cloning. Their motion to proceed fell far short of the votes needed to end a filibuster, and the bill had to be set aside for the time being -- although almost every Senator claims to oppose human cloning.
How did this happen? At a time when public opinion strongly opposes cloning of human beings and many other countries have acted to ban it, why is Congress dragging its heels?
The answer lies in two interfering factors.
First, President Clinton and abortion advocates had their own competing "ban" which they insisted should be the vehicle for congressional action. The problem is, their proposal would not ban cloning at all. It allows unlimited use of the technology that created "Dolly" the sheep to produce live human embryos -- and then prohibits transferring those embryos to a woman's womb. Researchers would be free to make all the human clones they want, so long as they throw them away after they have experimented on them.
This may appeal to abortion activists, who long ago came to resemble the man who owns a hammer and sees everything around him as a nail. If you already think we can eliminate child abuse by preemptively killing children who may be at risk, or eliminate birth defects by preventing children with defects from being born alive, you can probably convince yourself that we can ban human cloning by simply requiring all cloned humans to be killed.
Yet even Senators who usually take a pro-life position voted to defer action on the Bond/Frist bill. They were confused by a second factor: Vigorous lobbying by biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, which insisted that the bill would inadvertently ban enormously promising medical research. They said cloning technology would be invaluable for generating customized "stem cells" to treat cancer, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses. Understandably, Senators hesitated to approve a bill that they feared might send medicine back to the Stone Age.
Understandably, but wrongly. Promising research and clinical use of stem cells for treatment of cancer and other diseases has been going on for years, with new advances announced almost weekly -- and those advances have nothing to do with experimenting on human embryos.
The truth behind the biotechnology industry's alarmist claims is this: From a purely technical point of view, it would be convenient to be able to create and destroy human embryos at will using somatic cell nuclear transfer technology. Convenient, but dead wrong.
Here is how the technology would work. Let's say you have a degenerative nerve disease and need replacement nerve tissue. In the future, scientists may be able to modify some of your body cells, take out their nuclei, and use them to create new human embryos who are your genetic twin sisters or brothers. They could grow these embryos for a week or two until their cells begin to differentiate, then cut them up to obtain stem cells that can be grown into new nerve tissue. You would receive implants using tissue grown from your dead identical twin.
Whenever I describe this "promising" breakthrough to friends, I get reactions like: "Yuck!" I'm sure most Senators would have the same reaction -- if they'd been told exactly what the biotech firms meant by "promising medical research." Who would want his or her treatment to rely on making and destroying innocent human embryos?
That "yuck" reaction has even been stated, in less visceral terms, by those who usually support legalized abortion. "The creation of human embryos specifically for research that will destroy them is unconscionable," said the Washington Post three years ago, when the federal government was debating embryo research. Last year, President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission found that the use of human cloning to create customized stem cell lines was "a rather expensive and far-fetched scenario," and said: "Because of ethical and moral concerns raised by the use of embryos for research purposes it would be far more desirable to explore the direct use of human cells of adult origin to produce specialized cells or tissues for transplantation into patients." The Commission listed three avenues of stem cell research that do not require cloning human embryos; researchers tell me that list is far from exhaustive.
Because of ignorance and confusion, the Senate has deferred action on a good bill in order to protect experiments that even abortion supporters say are "unconscionable." When the Senators figure out what a bill of goods they were sold, we will see a real ban on human cloning.
In fighting disease, we need all the tools we can get. But we can wage that war without acquiring the moral sense of a Darth Vader.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.)