As scientific advances bring cloning out of the realm of science fiction and into the domain of medical reality, concern is growing about what the possible implications will be. Tinkering with human DNA, many fear, amounts to playing God—and it could have disastrous consequences. Will experiments gone awry result in deformed human beings? Will people replicate themselves for egomaniacal reasons? Will the concept of human identity drastically change? "Life is a creation, not a commodity," President Bush argued last month in a speech before Congress, and as such, he emphasized, it should not be manufactured through cloning as though it were some kind of specialty good.
But many also argue that an important distinction needs to be recognized between "reproductive cloning," in which the goal is the creation of a full-fledged human being, and "therapeutic cloning," in which the goal is the creation of a several-day-old embryo from which undifferentiated stem cells can be harvested and potentially used to cure a variety of devastating diseases. Those who believe that human life begins with the very existence of an embryo cannot countenance a procedure that involves an embryo's creation and destruction, even at a very early stage. But those who believe that human life does not begin at least until an embryo's cells have begun to differentiate themselves into distinctly human tissues feel that prohibiting such research—which could save the lives of many people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other illnesses—would in itself be reprehensible and disrespectful of human life.
Federal funding for human-embryo research was outlawed in 1995, which limits the number of researchers who can pursue therapeutic cloning. Currently, a privately-funded company called Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) is the only group in the country openly pursuing the research. Curious about how this company was faring, and about the research that they do, Kyla Dunn, a science writer and former biotech researcher, last fall began studying their work. She interviewed ACT's executives and scientists, spent time in the laboratory observing technicians, and followed the case of Trevor Ross, a two-year-old boy with a rare and devastating genetic disease called X-linked adrenoleuko-dystrophy (ALD) whose parents had brought him to the company. In "Cloning Trevor," her June cover story for The Atlantic, Dunn describes ACT's genesis and development, and chronicles its efforts to help Trevor.
ACT's scientific work, Dunn observed, was by necessity painstakingly slow and very expensive. Keeping the company financially solvent was a constant challenge. Last November, ACT's directors anounced to the national media that the company had successfully created the world's first cloned human embryos, when in fact it had managed only to sustain a cloned embryo to the six-cell stage. Though ACT's claim was dismissed by most scientists as a premature publicity stunt, opponents of cloning seized upon ACT's announcement, urging that a ban should be enacted right away before any further ethically questionable progress could be made. Meanwhile, ACT's scientists doggedly continued their efforts to create cloned embryos using Trevor's skin cells, aware that their work might be deemed illegal at any time.
Although ACT has lofty goals and is staffed by talented scientists, Dunn suggests that it may be too much to hope that ACT, or any private company will be able to make significant headway in the field of therapeutic cloning:
The broad consensus in the scientific community is that therapeutic-cloning research merits significant exploration, and that real progress is likely only with government funding and support . As long as a federal-funding ban remains in place, the organizations most likely to move forward with therapeutic-cloning research will be companies like ACT—which, despite generally noble intentions, are bedeviled by the need to raise money, generate buzz, and please investors.
ACT and the many people who hope that they or their loved ones might one day benefit from therapeutic cloning know all too well, however, that the question of public vs. private funds may soon become moot. A proposal to ban cloning altogether has already been passed by the House. It is now before the Senate, and a vote may come as early as June.
I corresponded with Kyla Dunn by e-mail.
"Cloning Trevor" is available in the print edition of the June 2002 issue. It is also avaible for online purchase in our premium archive.
You make clear that there's an immense amount of ignorance and misunderstanding about the nature of therapeutic cloning. Many of those in a position to vote on the subject seem to have the mistaken notion that therapeutic cloning entails growing whole babies in the laboratory to be mined for spare parts. Is it your sense that those who do have a thorough and accurate understanding of what therapeutic cloning really means tend to support it?
Certainly among lawmakers confusion abounds—if not about the science of therapeutic cloning, then about the implications of outlawing it. I think Congressman Delahunt, of Massachusetts, put it well last July when he said, during the debate preceding the vote in the House of Representatives, "I do not believe that I know what I need to know before casting a vote of such profound consequence. I am not ready to decide the intricate and fundamental questions raised by this legislation on the basis of a single hearing held on a single afternoon at which the subcommittee heard only five minutes of testimony from only four witnesses, a hearing which many Members, myself included, were not even able to attend." Several of his colleagues voiced the same concern.
But misunderstanding of the procedure, to answer your question, is by no means the only reason for opposition. Many lawmakers, like many of their constituents, have deeply held beliefs about the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception. Senator Sam Brownback, of Kansas, a leading opponent of this technology, is one of them. He understands precisely what therapeutic cloning entails, yet characterizes legislation that would keep it legal as follows: "This will inevitably lead to the creation of cloned human embryo farms where embryos will be grown to specification and then harvested for body parts."
The senator's rhetoric, obviously, is inflammatory (and embryos, at five days of development, have no "bodies" to harvest "parts" from—although this is what his wording implies). The reason he gets away with it is that if you parse his sentence carefully, you'll see there's nothing technically wrong with it. Yes, cloned human embryos will be grown to specification in laboratories. Yes, stem cells will be harvested from them, destroying each embryo in the process. Yes, those cells will be used to create, in the lab, therapeutic tissues (which he's calling "body parts") for transplant into sick patients. His characterization is grammatically correct. It's the same reason President Bush can get away with characterizing this research as "growing human beings for spare body parts"; if you believe that a five-day-old embryo is a human being, there's nothing technically wrong with that statement.
To be clear: the embryos scientists intend to use for therapeutic cloning are approximately five days into their development in a lab dish. At this stage, a human embryo is a round, fluid-filled ball of about 150 undifferentiated cells. It is smaller than a grain of sand. It is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. It would fit effortlessly on the point of a pin. Some people look at that embryo and see a "human being." Others look at that same embryo and see just a clump of cells.