Crossing Ethical Borders: Human Cloning Marches On, Without U.S.
February 15, 2004
By NICHOLAS WADE
THE production of the first human cloned embryo in Seoul
last week marked a fine achievement for South Korean
scientists. But it underlines the price the United States
may pay for its unresolved debate over human embryonic stem
cells: if American researchers lose their technical lead,
Washington will also forfeit the chance to set the ethical
rules of the game.
This outcome contrasts with the last big ethical issue
posed by new biological research, the invention in 1975 of
recombinant DNA, the first technique to let researchers
move genes from one organism to another. On that occasion,
after a fierce and often bitter discussion, biomedical
researchers were allowed to go ahead with the new technique
under rules drawn up by their patron agency, the National
Institutes of Health.
Because of the open political process by which the N.I.H.
rules were shaped, their moral authority extended far
beyond their legal reach; these or similar regulations were
observed by private industry and by most other countries
where the research was being done.
Washington has chosen a different path with human embryonic
stem cells, one based on a political compromise announced
by President Bush in August 2001. The deal was constructive
and artful. It allowed research with human embryonic cells
to begin at last, though only with cell lines created
before that date; researchers are not allowed to create new
ones. But last week's announcement in Seoul highlighted the
limits of the American approach. The rest of the world is
not standing still, and deriving new cell lines is an
important part of progress.
"By this policy we are ceding leadership in what may be one
of the most important medical advances for the next 10 to
15 years," said Dr. Irving Weissman, a stem cell researcher
at Stanford University. He also expressed disappointment
that the Korean advance could not have been made in the
United States. "That's a very telling lesson for us,'' he
said. "It says we are going to watch it happen."
Not everyone has such high regard for the new technology.
Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on
Bioethics, has been warning for years of the dangers of
human cloning. As if to fulfill his worst forebodings, last
week's announcement came on his 65th birthday. Dr. Kass
declined to comment on the event, saying he didn't want to
sound like a broken record. But in his previous writings,
and in a 2002 report on cloning by the council, he made
plain his conviction that society should not hesitate to
curb scientists when they trespass on life's central
In that report, a majority of the council, joined by its
chairman, proposed a four-year moratorium on therapeutic
>cloning - the production of cloned human embryos to
generate cells to repair a patient's diseased tissues - and
an outright ban on the reproductive cloning that is made
possible by the same technique.
Advances in reproductive technology often create enormous
furor because they seem to touch the essence of human
existence. The first test-tube baby, born in 1978, produced
an outcry about the ethics of the technique involved. But
the great gift to infertile families - fertility clinics in
the United States alone have now created more than 100,000
babies - soon outweighed the forebodings of disaster.
The ability to clone human embryos could follow a similar
path from horror to humdrum, if it produces similar
benefits. It is not unknown for scientists to overpromise,
whether to secure funds or discourage opposition, and it is
far from certain that therapeutic cloning will work as
hoped. Still, the possibility of tapping the cell's ability
to regenerate the body's tissues is hard to ignore.
The Korean scientists, if their experiment is confirmed in
other laboratories, will have proved, in principle, the
viability of the first step in therapeutic cloning, that of
converting an ordinary body cell back into the embryonic
state. But one element in their success is simply that they
were able to amass enough human eggs to get the standard
techniques to work, and had no legal restrictions standing
in their way.
So far the technique works only for women. The researchers
used a nucleus from a particular type of female body cell
known as a cumulus cell, which surrounds the egg. Cumulus
cells have proved particularly suitable for nuclear
transfer in animals.
If therapeutic cloning is the researchers' only goal, why
is the procedure controversial? One reason is that its
hole basis has been attacked by the anti-abortion movement
on the grounds that dissecting a blastocyst is tantamount
to killing a person.
Large numbers of surplus blastocysts are routinely
generated in fertility clinics, and the merest handful of
these have provided all the stem cells used in research.
But white-coated scientists make a better political target
than infertile couples desperately seeking to produce a
Politics aside, Dr. Kass and many other ethicists feel
strongly that medical progress is not an absolute good that
should be allowed to override all other values, like the
natural limits on human life and the cycle of generations.
Others share Dr. Kass's unease, if not necessarily all his
If scientists can show that therapeutic cloning saves
lives, they will doubtless be able to quell such doubts.
President Bush's compromise of 2001 gave them a chance to
do so, but the Seoul experiment shows that the United
States is no longer the only player in the game and could
soon lose the chance to set rules for the rest of the