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A clone by any other name?


by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

The United States House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a ban on all forms of human cloning, and the Senate is likely to consider a similar ban when it returns from summer recess after Labor Day.

This policy would make illegal not only the kind of cloning conjured up by Frankensteinian futurists who predict the creation of troops of identical humans to perform dangerous or evil tasks, or in which rich and narcissistic people use cloning to create identical copies of themselves born 30, 40, or even 50 years after the original.

The ban would affect any use of cloning technology, whether for reproduction or the more likely application of creating early stage embryos for the stem cells they contain, termed therapeutic cloning.

This sort of overarching ban on cloning comes on the heels of announcements by a reproductive medicine clinic in Virginia that it is creating embryos for research purposes, and by a biotech company in Boston that is working to "activate" human eggs in order to collect stem cells -- a technology that is effectively cloning.

What does such a ban mean for reproductive medicine and stem cell research and its eventual therapeutic applications?

Why does cloning matter?

Almost nobody disputes that human reproductive cloning is too risky even to think about doing at the moment, and there is broad support for a ban on cloning for reproductive purposes, at least until we have a better understanding of both the scientific and social risks it entails. But that's only part of why cloning might be used, and a very narrow application of cloning technology.

More likely, the first uses of cloning would be to create embryos genetically identical to the person from whom the cloned cells were taken. They would be used not to grow a duplicate person, but rather so the embryo's division could be stopped at a very early stage and the stem cells within it collected.

These stem cells would then be used for research and development of the sorts of medical therapies promised by proponents of stem cell research. If successful, such techniques might allow for cells to be grown to create replacement organs, neural implants for patients with degenerative nervous disorders like Alzheimer's disease, or disease-fighting cells, all of which would be an exact genetic match for the patient being treated. Such development would effectively do away with the problem of immune rejection.

This is a far different prospect than growing copies of humans, and we should ask whether a single policy is appropriate to address both.

Can't we stop the slippery slope?

The concern over trying to ban reproductive but not therapeutic uses of cloning is largely based on the "slippery slope" maxim: Once clones are created, the theory goes, it is merely a ride down the slippery slope until we start cloning humans.

While it is true that a clone created for therapeutic uses would be just the same as one created for reproductive use, there could easily be stiff penalties imposed for implanting a cloned embryo into a woman's womb or otherwise trying to allow its development into a child. What remains unclear and untested is whether any ban on reproductive cloning will withstand constitutional muster in light of longstanding law and policy supporting reproductive liberty.

Whatever answer comes from the courts, the ease with which the ban passed through the House and the early rhetoric coming from the Senate indicate that banning cloning may be one way to ease political tensions over stem cell research. In a horse trade of sorts, legislators seem willing to give up even therapeutic uses of cloning in order to inoculate themselves against charges that funding stem cell research will lead to unacceptable uses of human embryos.

With a decision from the Bush administration on stem cells expected soon, Senate action on a cloning ban takes on increased significance. Before such a law makes its way to the president's desk, we should ask ourselves whether a clone by any other name would certainly be as bad.

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.

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