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Week of 17 January 2003· Vol. VI, No. 17

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Bioethicist Annas urges separation of reproductive and research cloning

By David J. Craig

Few observers believe that a Canadian religious cult claiming to have successfully cloned a human being last month had the technological know-how to pull off the unprecedented medical feat.

George Annas Photo by Vernon Doucette
  George Annas Photo by Vernon Doucette

Scientists recoiled at hearing the news, though, fearing the apparent hoax would sensationalize public debate about legitimate cloning research. Lawmakers in this country pushing to ban such research, after all, like to conjure up precisely this nightmare scenario: a cloned embryo slips into the wrong hands, is implanted in a woman who brings it to term, and voilà -- human asexual reproduction becomes reality.

So just how feasible is it that rogue scientists could clone a person today? George Annas, an SPH professor and chairman of health law and a prominent bioethicist, says that although it would be extremely difficult and dangerous, it is possible. The technology involved is fundamentally the same as that used to clone mice and other mammals in the laboratory: a person’s genetic material would be placed in a human egg whose own nucleus had been removed, and the rebuilt egg would be placed in a surrogate mother.

The hitch is that scientists have no idea how to clone an organism without causing severe genetic defects, and reputable scientists say it would be deplorable to try out the technology on people.

But what is of interest to scientists is studying cloned human embryos to advance stem cell research that one day could help treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Annas, who leads Global Lawyers and Physicians for Human Rights, an organization that supports a proposed U.N. ban on human reproductive cloning but believes cloning research should be allowed to proceed, recently spoke with the B.U. Bridge about the ethical use of cloning technology.

B.U. Bridge: What are the most important arguments against human reproductive cloning?

Annas: Virtually everybody, myself included, wants to outlaw reproductive cloning because it would simply be too dangerous to resulting children. You can’t do experiments that you know will kill or cause serious bodily injury to human subjects, which, in this case, would be the clones.

There also are broader ethical issues involved. Let’s assume, just for the sake of discussion, that we could do human asexual reproduction safely. Parents then would have too much dominion over their children, and children would be seen as made-to-order products, which would cheapen them, if not completely dehumanize them. You can also imagine that if people start valuing children simply for their genetic characteristics, that would have a bad impact on all children, not just those who are cloned.

B.U. Bridge: Can you describe how so-called therapeutic cloning, or research cloning, is different from reproductive cloning?

Annas: Research cloning is essentially one step beyond stem cell research, which involves coaxing cells in very early-stage embryos to eventually become any type of tissue in the body, whether it be a heart, liver, muscle, or nerve cell. The hope for cloning research is that while stem cells might be rejected by a recipient’s body, if we could clone an embryo out of a person’s own cells and then produce stem cells from that, they would be a perfect genetic match, and we wouldn’t have to worry about rejection. But that’s decades off, at least.

B.U. Bridge: And you think scientists should be allowed to do that kind of research?

Annas: I do, although I recognize that once you create cloned embryos, there is a chance that rogue scientists are going to try to implant one in a woman. So if we permit research cloning, it’s going to have to be heavily regulated by the federal government. We’re going to have to prohibit freezing of cloned human embryos so no one can store or transfer them, and prohibit the purchase and sale of them, and I think that no one could be allowed to work in this type of research unless they’re licensed by the federal government.

I should also say that I don’t think there’s a necessity to do research on cloned embryos right now because scientists haven’t even figured out how to do this sort of thing with embryos left over in [fertilization] clinics. Only a very small number of people seriously object to doing research on embryos left over in clinics, while many people object to making cloned embryos.

B.U. Bridge: Do you believe it is inevitable that someone will clone a human soon, as some suggest?

Annas: I’m skeptical it will happen soon, but it’s not unreasonable to think it will happen someday.

B.U. Bridge: At what stage is the technology that would be involved?

Annas: We don’t know, because anyone trying to do it now is doing it in secret, totally irresponsibly, and to the general disapproval of the entire scientific community. What we do know is that every mammal that has been cloned has had severe genetic abnormalities and that no one who has tried to clone a primate has succeeded yet.

There’s a program in Texas that’s been trying to clone a dog for five years, with no success. Dolly [the sheep] was a success, obviously, and that took about 300 tries. So I suppose if you had 300 or 400 women willing to do this and a very knowledgeable physician in assisted reproduction and a couple of years, it’s almost certain you could get one or more clones, but it would take a big, big effort.

B.U. Bridge: You lead a group of prominent scientists, Global Lawyers and Physicians for Human Rights, that is pushing for a U.N. ban on human reproductive cloning. How is that proceeding?

Annas: We’re working with the United Nations Drafting Committee to try to work out a compromise. Originally, France and Germany and most of the other European countries recommended that the U.N. ban reproductive cloning, but then the United States and the Vatican came in and said that they wanted a ban on research cloning also and that they wouldn’t support a reproductive cloning ban unless the U.N. also bans research cloning. So that’s currently being debated in the Drafting Committee.

B.U. Bridge: Is there any reason to hope that the U.S. government might allow cloning research in this country?

Annas: There’s some. Leading Democrats like Senator Edward Kennedy have proposals similar to that effect, but I think with a Republican House, Senate, and president, a lot of it is up to the new Senate majority leader, Senator Bill Frist. He might be able to persuade President Bush to back off from his total opposition to cloning research. Actually, it’s a little unclear right now what Bush’s position is on this -- whether he might support a moratorium or heavy regulation on cloning research, for example.

B.U. Bridge: Can you envision any scenario where you would support reproductive cloning for humans?

Annas: Not only is it dangerous, but there’s no good reason to do it. In artificial reproduction and in vitro fertilization, the argument has always been that people have a natural urge to have a child and that we should help couples who are infertile. But humans have no natural urge to clone. That someone might have the bizarre desire to make a genetic duplicate of themselves or another person isn’t a good enough reason to allow it.


17 January 2003
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