The announcement that Korean scientists have created clonal human embryos puts new urgency behind the need for effective public oversight and control of new human genetic and reproductive technologies. While cloning techniques may someday have legitimate therapeutic applications, in the short term they make it far easier for rogue scientists to attempt to clone a child, and set the stage for other abuses. Given the absence of effective controls and regulations over these technologies in the great majority of countries, the Korean experiments are ill-considered and irresponsible.
The high hopes that many hold for therapies using embryonic stem cells may one day be realized, but the prospects are still uncertain. Research to determine and develop their usefulness can and should proceed, using embryos donated in the course of IVF treatments. Public funds should be made available for this purpose and public oversight established.
It is important to understand that the use of cloning techniques in support of prospective stem cell therapies is not proposed as a means of creating a sufficient number of embryos with which to conduct research. Surplus embryos are already available for this purpose. Rather, the use of cloning techniques is proposed for a single, more specific application: to prevent stem cell tissues used in prospective therapeutic treatments from being rejected by a person's immune system.
If other means can be developed to prevent such rejection, however, or if it turns out that embryonic stem cells do not after all provide therapeutic value, then there is no reason that cloning techniques would need to be developed in the first place. It's possible, and perhaps medically preferable, for example, that a relatively few stem cell lines might be developed that would provide good immunological matches for the entire population, or that new immuno-suppressant drugs might prove effective.
Can therapeutic cloning ever really work?
More fundamentally, the ability of embryonic stem cells to offer therapeutic benefits is far from being demonstrated. Even if it were, the prospects for actually using cloned embryonic stem cells as part of a generally available medical procedure are highly problematic. The process of developing such "customized" stem cells would be time-consuming and perhaps prohibitively expensive. And no realistic or safe way has been proposed to obtain the millions of women's eggs that would be needed to make embryonic stem cell therapies widely available.
In short, there is no good reason that human cloning techniques need to be developed at this time. As a consequence, it is incorrect and misleading to suggest that taking a precautionary approach to cloning research would deny or delay potentially life-saving treatments for those suffering from such diseases as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.
At the same time, the danger of abuse of human cloning techniques is immediate. The potential now exists for widespread exploitation of women, especially in developing countries, as scientists use all possible inducements to obtain female eggs needed for cloning experiments. And how long will it take before one rogue scientist or another applies the techniques developed by the Koreans, now published in Science magazine, to create a clonal embryo with the intent of implanting and gestating it, and bringing it to term? In most countries this procedure is still perfectly legal. It's critically important to understand that the Korean techniques do not prevent clonal embryos from carrying the genetic reprogramming errors that appear in the great majority of animal clones. Any clonal child born will almost certainly posses numerous, possibly lethal, genetic reprogramming errors.
Understanding the conflicts over cloning
If the prospects for stem cell and cloning therapeutics are so problematic, and the prospects of abuse so clear, what explains what one observer has called the growing "mania" in support of these technologies?
Obviously, many researchers pushing for approval and funding of these techniques are motivated by a commendable desire to explore all possible avenues that might lead to cures. Patients and their advocates likewise want to explore all possible avenues.
But policy-making over stem cell, cloning and embryo research has become entangled in a larger set of social, cultural and political conflicts. The fact that bans on these technologies are supported by religious conservatives predisposes many people to oppose such bans, even if they know little else about the issues at hand. The fact that the Bush Administration opposes most stem cell research motivates some political liberals and progressives to elevate support for such research to the level of a political party platform plank, even if a dispassionate analysis would suggest that other areas of medical research are far more likely to provide real health benefits, for more people, much sooner.
In addition, although stem cell scientists are quite aware of how far we are from realizing any real benefits from stem cell or cloning research, many have nonetheless and repeatedly offered unrealistically optimistic forecasts, as a way of building support for legislative approval and funding. This has the effect of motivating patients groups to become even more committed in their demand that such research be pursued as a matter of urgency.
Of course, interested parties have always made strong claims concerning things which they greatly desire or oppose. In a political democracy such claims are resolved through the legislative process, generally through bargaining and compromise. The problem is that the issues at hand-cloning, embryo research, and the rest-touch on very deep and deeply contested values and beliefs. Patients see the prospect of treatments that might save their lives. Researchers see the prospect of better health care for millions of people. Biotech entrepreneurs see prospects of great wealth. Religious conservatives see prospects for great sin. Secular critics of biotechnology and genetic engineering see prospects of great harm, as out-of-control technologies set us on a path towards a new high-tech eugenics. In short, the current situation is hardly well-suited for wise, deliberative policy-making.
A path forward
Faced with all this, what should people of conscience do? Most urgently, the nations of the world, under the leadership of the United Nations and in cooperation with international civil society leaders and the world scientific community, should agree to begin, at the highest levels, a full and open examination of the potential benefits and risks presented by the full range of new human genetic technologies. These technologies have implications for the very future of the human species. All countries, cultures, and constituencies have a stake in how these technologies are developed over the coming years and decades.
In order to allow time for full and fair debate, the United Nations, civil society and the scientific community should consider calling for moratoria on the development of the most controversial new genetic technologies. Research on a wide range of human genetic technologies, specifically intended to answer questions bearing on their likely benefits and risks, could continue during such moratoria.
A partial pause such as this on the development of controversial genetic technologies would not be unprecedented in the annals of scientific research. In 1971, scientists involved in the development of the first gene transfer techniques declared a moratorium on further experiments to allow time for review of the risks, a full social debate, and establishment of agreed-upon regulations and controls. The moratorium was eventually lifted and recombinant DNA research recommenced.
If real progress is to be made towards breaking the current stalemate on cloning policy, all parties need to re-evaluate their current positions. Religious conservatives need to re-examine their continued opposition to legislation that bans reproductive cloning but does not also ban research cloning. The Bush Administration needs to reconsider its strictures on funding for embryo research. Liberals and progressives need to realize that cloning and other new genetic technologies open the door to potentially horrific new forms of eugenics and social exclusion, and should be viewed with the utmost concern. Scientists need to realize that society as a whole has the right and responsibility to set guidelines for profoundly consequential technologies. Scientists also need to hold each other accountable for raising false hopes among vulnerable constituencies and lay publics.
To repeat: there is no good reason for the development of cloning techniques of the sort announced by the Korean scientists at this time, and there is a very real risk that these techniques will be used for unacceptable purposes. Policy making needs to engage a much larger set of civil society constituencies than have been involved to date, and at the highest international levels. Given the stakes, a precautionary approach to the development of policy concerning the new human genetic and reproductive technologies is the wise and responsible approach.