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Embryo Cloning and Beyond

by Marcy DarnovskyTikkun
June 30th, 2002

July/August 2002

As Raymond Barglow's and Jeremy Rifkin's articles demonstrate, thoughtful people of good conscience and progressive politics may come to different conclusions about human embryo cloning.

Rifkin, along with other progressives, believes that embryo cloning could open the door to a high-tech eugenics controlled and promoted by biotechnology corporations. He points also to the health risks to the women who would have to donate the millions of eggs that therapies involving embryo cloning would require. Based on these misgivings, Rifkin supports a permanent ban on all kinds of human cloning.

Barglow, along with other progressives, emphasizes the role that embryo cloning may someday play in medical treatments that would use embryonic stem cells to regenerate damaged tissues and organs. Based on his hopes for "research that may aid so many millions of people who are afflicted by debilitating diseases," he is dismayed at Rifkin's stance.

And many people, progressives and others, are confused: pulled by both the hopes and dangers, tentative in their understanding of the underlying technical facts and political agendas, put off by the polarized tone of the embryo cloning debate.

The contradictory pulls in the embryo cloning controversy are perhaps especially troubling for Jews. Half a century after the Holocaust, most Jews remain viscerally sensitive to the horrors of a eugenic world view. Yet the Jewish tradition is particularly enthusiastic in its support for healing, medical innovation, and scientific knowledge.

What's the best way forward? How can we prevent a "techno-eugenic" future while encouraging research on promising new medical treatments?

The Politics of the New Human Genetic Technologies

I began paying attention to these sorts of questions several years ago, after reading Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver's notorious account of the new human genetic and reproductive technologies in Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World. Silver enthusiastically predicts that well-off parents will one day soon choose their children's DNA from a biotech catalog. This new market-based mode of childbearing is inevitable, he says, and will lead to the emergence first of genetic castes, which he dubs the "GenRich" and the "Naturals," and thereafter of separate human species.

At first I assumed that Silver was merely indulging in a bit of mad-scientist headline grabbing. When I learned that his vision of a "post-human" future is shared-and being publicly promoted-by a disturbing number of other mainstream scientists, bioethicists, pundits, and biotech entrepreneurs, I began to look for the progressive response. I expected some combination of alarm, sharp analysis, outrage, and ridicule. I found all that, but far less of it than I'd expected. Meanwhile, new genetic and reproductive technologies were burgeoning, biotech startups were raking in investment capital, and an extreme techno-libertarian ideology was taking root.

Before long, however, a growing network of progressives—scholars, scientists, advocates of environmental protection, women's health, human rights, disability rights, civil rights, and indigenous rights—did begin to mobilize around the threat of the new techno-eugenics. Our work had just gotten underway when the controversy about embryo cloning erupted, forcing us to engage a divisive issue of secondary concern rather than remaining focused on a unifying issue of primary concern.

For the most part, the national conversation about embryo cloning has been dangerously incompletely. It has polarized between religious conservatives who want to ban it permanently, regardless of any medical potential, and biomedical researchers who want an immediate green light, regardless of the eugenic and other risks that unrestricted embryo cloning would pose. Though neither Rifkin nor Barglow belong in either of these camps, I find both their positions unsatisfying as well.

I wholeheartedly share Rifkin's apprehension about embryo cloning and a new eugenics, though as I explain below I'd emphasize the technical and ideological connections as much as the financial ones on which he rests his case. But I differ with his call for an immediate permanent ban on embryo cloning.

I am very skeptical about Barglow's enthusiasm for embryo cloning. Many of the widely repeated claims about its medical promise are highly exaggerated. They are based far more on the search for venture capital than on any scientific findings. Yet I would support research on embryo cloning if it were done with the kind of regulatory oversight Barglow endorses. What Barglow doesn't mention or doesn't realize, however, is that the UK-style regulations he describes are aggressively opposed by many of the researchers and their allies who back the pro-embryo cloning legislation now being considered by Congress. We've proposed a temporary moratorium on embryo cloning to allow time for effective regulations to be put in place, but to date this alternative has not found a Congressional sponsor.

For better or worse, the embryo cloning controversy has set the stage for other debates that will soon be upon us. If only for that reason, it's worth grappling with its technical and political tangles.

Evaluating the Medical Potential of Embryo Cloning

Stem cells are the undifferentiated cells that give rise to the many specialized tissues in the human body. Adult stem cells are found in particular parts of the body, some capable of developing into several kinds of specialized cells.

Embryonic stem cells (ES cells), found in early-stage embryos, are believed to be capable of developing into every other kind of cell. They are more flexible than adult stem cells and easier to isolate. But their medical potential is complicated by two problems: first, they often cause tumors in animal models; second, they would probably have to be individually tailored to match the immune system characteristics of each patient.

Embryo cloning has been proposed as a way to solve the immune rejection problem. ES cells derived from embryos that had been cloned from a patient's own body would theoretically be immunologically compatible with the patient.

This prospect continues to inspire impassioned support. But it is unlikely ever to be practically feasible because of the cost and difficulty of cloning embryos for each patient, and of obtaining human eggs in the large numbers that would be necessary. According to a report last year in Nature, "many experts do not now expect therapeutic cloning to have a large clinical impact" (Peter Aldhous, "Can They Rebuild Us?," April 5, 2001). A recent story in the Los Angeles Times business section puts this conclusion in dollars-and-cents terms. The article, titled "Clone Profit? Unlikely" (May 10, 2002) quotes several top biotech executives on embryo cloning. "It is not commercially viable," said one. It's a "non-starter, commercially," said another.

Embryo cloning is at present a speculative rather than demonstrated component of ES cell therapies. And research on ES cell therapies is itself preliminary. In fact, these are still early days for both adult stem and ES cell research: No one knows just how much medical value either will turn out to have.

It is certainly reasonable to argue that research on both kinds of stem cells should move forward. But here's a point that's often overlooked: ES cell research could proceed for some time without embryo cloning, because ES cells could be derived from embryos originally produced for in vitro fertilization procedures. Support for ES cell research can and does coexist with deep wariness about embryo cloning.

Embryo Cloning and Eugenic Engineering: What's the Connection?

In all the commentary about human cloning, few have noticed the most significant threat it poses: Embryo cloning is the technology that would make the creation of eugenically engineered "designer babies" commercially feasible.

The process of producing a genetically redesigned child would involve creating an embryo through in vitro fertilization, culturing ES cells derived from it to provide a sufficient population for the tricky task of inserting genes, and then extracting the nucleus of a successfully altered cell to construct a cloned embryo. The resulting child would not be a clone: He or she would have developed from a cell derived from an embryo created with an egg and a sperm, and "improved" in the laboratory. The altered genes would be present in every cell of the child's body, and would be passed down to any and all future generations. [see illustration]

Many people assume that this kind of genetic manipulation-often called "inheritable genetic modification"-is necessary in order for parents who carry a gene associated with diseases such as Tay Sachs or cystic fibrosis to avoid passing it on to their children. This is not the case, and those who say it is are mistaken or intending to mislead. Using already available screening techniques, parents at risk of having children with serious genetic diseases like these can select embryos unaffected by the condition.

Embryo selection, or "pre-implantation genetic diagnosis," is itself subject to abuse, and in need of strong regulation. Many disability rights activists argue that it is being used in a misguided search for "perfect" babies, and many feminists voice concern about its use to satisfy "gender preference." But allowing parents to select from among several embryos for serious medical reasons would have far lesser eugenic implications than would a consumer-based dynamic of "improving" future children by genetic manipulation.

This little-remarked technical relationship between embryo cloning and inheritable genetic is a red flag. In the absence of effective regulation, it is very worrisome. And it is truly alarming in light of the ongoing efforts of noted scientists, authors and others to make eugenic engineering seem both alluring and inevitable.

Is a New Eugenics a Serious Concern?

How seriously should we treat predictions of the inevitable emergence of a genetic elite and "post-human" species? We can hope that technical unreliability will block those who would like to endow future children with manipulated genes or artificial chromosomes. But transgenic animals-goats that secrete spider silk in their milk, rabbits that glow in the dark-are routine. And even if "GenRich"-type alterations remain beyond technical reach, the ideological impact of promoting them is dangerously powerful.

Marketing the ability to specify our children's appearance and abilities encourages a grotesque consumerist mentality toward children and all human life. Fostering the notion that only a "perfect baby" is worthy of life threatens our solidarity with and support for the disabled, and perpetuates unattainable standards of perfection. Channeling hopes for human betterment into preoccupation with genetic fixes shrinks our already withered commitments to improving social conditions and enriching cultural and community life. Promoting a future of genetically engineered inequality legitimizes the vast existing injustices that are socially arranged and enforced.

Most advocates of eugenic engineering realize that their project all too easily triggers concerns like these, and evokes associations with Nazi racism and genocide. They counter that while the Nazis' methods were pernicious, and while governmental coercion must of course be avoided, the new eugenics would emerge out of the voluntary choices of parents-to-be who had concluded that pre-selecting their offspring's genes would give their children the best start in life.

This consumer's view of eugenics lends itself to the claim that designing a baby is an "individual right." But rights are always socially negotiated-not long ago, slave owning and marital rape were counted among them. And the value we properly place on individual liberty must always be balanced against our commitments to social justice and solidarity. Changing a future child's genetic makeup, and experimenting with the genetic legacy of humanity, fall outside any acceptable notion of individual rights or parental prerogative.

The advocates of eugenic engineering are on equally shaky ground when they assert—as in titles such as Children of Choice and From Chance to Choice—that manipulating a future child's genes is a "reproductive choice." Terminating an unwanted pregnancy is very different from determining the genetic constitution of a future child.

Also suspect are claims that restrictions on inheritable genetic modification and reproductive cloning would trample scientific freedom. The capacity to manipulate the genes we pass on to our children carries social and political risks as momentous as those posed by any technology humanity has yet developed. Surely such a world-shaping technology is a proper subject for democratic control.

A Solution to the Impasse?

At the moment it appears unlikely that Congress will pass any cloning legislation in the current session, in spite of nearly universal professions of support for a ban on reproductive cloning. This would leave us with no legislative protection against even the "cowboy cloners" who say they are about to produce cloned babies. It would put the U.S. at odds with the dozens of countries-the 41 nations of the Council of Europe, along with India, Peru, South Africa, and others-that have already adopted bans on both reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification. And it would be a setback for efforts just getting underway in the United Nations to draft a global convention banning reproductive cloning.

What is to be done? Let's look at the big picture. We believe that that there is widespread support, domestically and internationally, for responsible governance of the new human genetic and reproductive technologies.

First, reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification should be banned. These technologies serve no overriding positive purpose, and open the door to a potentially catastrophic eugenic future.

Second, we need responsible, accountable regulation of other new human genetic and reproductive technologies, including embryo cloning, pre-natal and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and sex selection.

Third, we need a commitment to the active development and equitable distribution of applications of genetic technologies that can help prevent disease and alleviate suffering.

Domestically and immediately, there is a pressing need for a good-faith efforts to begin establishing responsible and accountable regulation of the new human genetic and reproductive technologies. Towards these ends, the kind of regulatory structure that Barglow describes, based on the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFEA), is precisely what we have in mind. We invite Barglow, Rifkin, and others to work with us to build wide support for establishing such a mechanism in the U.S.

In the heat of Congressional debate over cloning, which has been framed as a contest between Christian conservatives who want to stop medical progress and liberals who want to save dying children, some have come close to suggesting that the "progressive" position would be to affirm the right of the biotechnology industry to do whatever it wants, as fast as it can, under as few regulatory constraints as possible.

Such a position is untenable enough under any circumstances. When the issue at hand involves technologies that could unleash a new high-tech eugenics upon the world, it is perilous.

Decisions about how and where to draw political and policy lines around the new human genetic and reproductive technologies are decisions about the future of humanity. They must not be left to those committed to grotesque visions of a "post-human" future, or with financial or professional stakes in particular procedures. We must ensure that the new human genetic technologies are used to advance health and well-being for all, and not hijacked in the service of a dangerous new eugenics.

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