Beyond the embryo fight

The debate over cloning embryos for stem cell research has been one of the most divisive and unpleasant public controversies of the last decade. Partisans on both sides have sought to polarize the issue for political advantage rather than look for middle-ground positions that a majority of Americans would welcome.

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article said that both Republicans and Democrats have committed billions of taxpayer dollars to human embryo cloning research. It was later noted that it was mostly Democrats who promoted state ballot initiatives to commit the funds.

In general, Republicans have equated medical research using single-celled clonal embryos with murder, while Democrats have promoted state ballot initiatives enshrining human embryo cloning as a constitutional right and committing billions of taxpayer dollars to a procedure that could open the door to socially pernicious applications, threaten women’s health and exacerbate healthcare inequities.

Now we have a chance to put the cloning debate behind us.

Scientists in Japan and the United States announced Tuesday that they have successfully reprogrammed human skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. The new techniques bypass the need to create and destroy human embryos. Research using these techniques would be fully fundable under current U.S. federal government policy. It can be supported by liberal, pro-choice Democrats and socially conservative, pro-life Republicans alike.

Response from all sides has been swift. President Bush’s science advisors are enthusiastic about the new procedures. British scientist Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep, is abandoning attempts to use cloning for medical research and will henceforth work with the new techniques. Human embryo cloning, he said, is both technically inefficient and socially less acceptable than the new methods.

For the last decade, scientists in favor of cloning have been telling us that human embryo cloning was the key to the “stem cell century” and would revolutionize medical care for hundreds of millions suffering from intractable disease.

In 2004, California scientists appeared in television ads in their white lab coats promising cures for desperately ill children if voters approved Proposition 71, the $3-billion ballot initiative for stem cell research that prioritized embryo cloning. In 2006, more than $30 million was spent to persuade Missouri voters to approve a constitutional amendment that had little purpose other than to preclude possible restrictions on cloning-based stem cell research.

It’s well known that religious conservatives oppose research involving human cloning, based on their belief in the personhood of human embryos. But the great unreported story of the cloning debate is that research using cloning also has been viewed skeptically by many scientists and public interest advocates who identify as liberals, progressives and supporters of women’s health and reproductive rights.

Many have noted the immense technical hurdles that would have to be overcome before cloning could ever be used therapeutically. Others are concerned about access and affordability, given that cloning-based stem cell therapies would likely cost upward of $100,000 a treatment. Still others recognize that the development of cloning techniques for research would open the door to human reproductive cloning and an array of high-tech eugenic and “designer baby” applications. And many women’s health leaders are concerned about the risks posed by the fact that millions of women’s eggs, which are the raw materials of cloning, would be needed each year if the promised era of personalized medicine through cloning were ever to materialize.

As soon as religious conservatives called for embryo cloning to be banned, however, liberal leaders reacted by uncritically embracing it. From that point on, it was an uphill struggle for liberals who otherwise supported stem cell research to raise questions about cloning without being portrayed as dupes or fellow travelers of the Bush administration.

We can now put this sorry history behind us and get on with promising medical research that is supported by all sides. Here’s what we need to do:

First, the stem cell research community should follow Wilmut’s lead and put human embryo cloning on the back burner. At the same time, Congress and the president should expedite federal funding to expand research using the newly announced techniques. In the event that they prove inadequate, embryo cloning can be revisited.

Next, Congress and the president should move quickly to enact a federal ban on reproductive cloning and to support calls for an international ban. The sheer notoriety that reproductive cloning offers will be impossible for rogue scientists to resist.

Finally, Congress and the president should realize that cloning is only the tip of the human biotech iceberg. Techniques are under development that would enable creation of designer babies, genetically modified athletes, artificial life forms that can mutate and reproduce, and more. We need federal laws and regulations allowing genetic technology to be used for socially benign and beneficent purposes, while precluding its use for objectionable purposes.

There is no reason, especially now, why we cannot find common ground on such consequential issues. The stakes are huge and time is short.

Richard Hayes is executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland.