A Happy Ending to the Human Cloning Debate?

Published November 19, 2007

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The debate over human cloning is likely to come to an end this week. It will be a happy ending — believe it or not — for patients, scientists, and ethicists alike.

The Scottish scientist who cloned Dolly the Sheep and who has been at the helm of the human cloning lobby, has made a startling announcement: he is turning his back on cloning altogether in order to pursue a more effective procedure involving adult skin cells.

Professor Ian Wilmut spoke this weekend to the Telegraph newspaper: "I decided a few weeks ago not to pursue nuclear transfer [the method by which Dolly was cloned]."

Startling indeed!

Professor Wilmut will not take advantage of his licence from the United Kingdom to attempt human embryonic cloning because he is now convinced that two independent research teams in Japan and the United States have discovered a process that is much more efficient than therapeutic cloning (his own discovery) and offers a more realistic and timely hope for therapies of serious illnesses, such as stroke, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Wilmut believes these scientists have had success in “reprogramming” adult skin cells to have the properties of human embryonic stem cells. From a small skin sample (about 1/10 of an inch), doctors will be able to generate patient-matched stem cells with all the desired versatility (“pluripotency”) of embryonic cells, allowing them to develop into any type of human tissue without being rejected by the patient’s immune system as a foreign intruder.

His announcement is likely to encourage the two scientific teams that he has signaled to publish their findings as early as this week.

Doctors and ethicists with whom I have had contact over the last few days, say the publication would confirm the greatest scientific discovery of the last 25 years.

The advent of “Direct Reprogramming,” as the new process is called, will make “therapeutic cloning” or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) virtually obsolete.

It will also shed light on the much-hyped rhetoric of the most outspoken promoters of “therapeutic cloning” and on all of the politicians who have used it as a campaign issue against their “anti-patient” and “anti-science” political foes.

On November 5th, 2006, for example, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) talked specifically about therapeutic cloning on FOX News Sunday. After first denying that she was in favor of any type of cloning, she went on to explain why she was in favor of SCNT (therapeutic cloning): “We know that this kind of research provides great hope for cures for millions of Missourians and Americans. This is very important that we do not leave this work to other countries, that Americans have the opportunity to participate in these cures like they will in other nations if we try to turn our back on this important medical research.”

But Sen. McCaskilll went even further. During the same senatorial campaign, she supported a referendum to Missouri’s state constitution that created a constitutional right to embryonic stem cell research, including SCNT.

It will be interesting to see if Sen. McCaskill will now initiate a referendum to the previous referendum, making illegal the cloning of human embryos — a process scientists like Dr. Wilmut are now calling inefficient and obsolete (not to mention the ethical considerations of creating a human embryo with the intention of destroying it).

Missouri has not been alone in its euphoric support of therapeutic cloning. Politicians in New Jersey, California and other states have invited the inspiring stump speaker and actor, Michael J. Fox, to join them on their campaign trail. Nothing can take away from his courageous and inspiring crusade for medical cures, but the scientific data on which he has long depended is now disputed by the greatest experts in the field.

The actor’s Web site says this of therapeutic cloning: “Based on evidence available to date, the Foundation believes that the development of viable and feasible cell replacement therapies [therapeutic cloning] could revolutionize the treatment of Parkinson's disease.”

And on more than one occasion Mr. Fox gave testimony to Congress in favor of embryonic stem cell research, including therapeutic cloning. He wanted billions of dollars of federal funding to be earmarked for a procedure the heavyweights in stem cell research are now rejecting:

"For two years you have had a parade of witnesses — scientists, ethicists, theologians of every school, and some celebrities — discussing every nuance of stem cell research. You've given time to all sides of the issue, including the few but very vocal opponents. But the consistent and inescapable conclusion is that this research offers the potential to eliminate diseases — literally save millions of lives. So, while I applaud your thoroughness, I can't help but say, respectfully: 'Enough!' It's time to act on what we've learned. Sadly, we've already lost two years' progress toward a cure. Further delay would come at a high price. This is why I'm back before the committee today. Every day funding is delayed means that a person with Parkinson's is getting closer to total loss of independence or slipping slowly toward the progressive inevitability of this disease. These delays have real human consequences measured in suffering and loss of life. I see in these cells a chance for a medical miracle. Release our tax dollars so the scientists can do their work."

At the high price of public mockery and political fallout, President Bush said “no” to federal funding. How is it possible, his opponents argued, to deny millions of sick people the chance for a cure?

At the time, the reasoning for not giving in to the public outcry was mostly about ethics: if scientists say a human embryo is a human being, how can any good objective, even the potential cure of millions of people, justify its destruction? It would be tantamount to saying the most powerful in society have the right to destroy the weakest members.

Who would deny that this kind of utilitarian logic has not failed humanity several times in the history of the 20th century?

This is the lesson I am taking away from the breathtaking discovery Dr. Wilmut has revealed: the next time scientists or politicians or actors tell us we have to destroy some lives in order to save others, we should thank them for their dedication to medical cures, but then encourage them to look elsewhere.

This is not a time to be triumphalistic. It would be wrong to frame the alleged discovery as an ideological victory for the good guys over the bad guys. We are witnesses, first and foremost, of a victory for patients who desperately need cures for insufferable illnesses and of the simultaneous survival of the weakest members of society, the unborn.

Soon we will know if we have stumbled over a truly happy and unexpected ending to the debate about human cloning.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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