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6/5/97 Ethicist challenges commission on nod for human embryo cloning

WASHINGTON (BP)–Privately funded clinics may move forward with the cloning of human embryos if Congress agrees with an expected report of the federal government’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission.
The commission aimed for “the common ground of safety concerns” in its reported decision, meanwhile, to call for a ban on the use of cloning for human reproduction, according to the June 4 Washington Post.
The commission was established by President Clinton following the February announcement of the cloning of a sheep by scientists in Scotland.
Fearful cloning may present “serious health risks” for both the clone and the woman receiving the embryo implant, the commission is calling for legislation that would prohibit use of the cloned embryo to make human babies, The Post reported.
The commission, composed of authorities in the fields of science, law and theology, met five times and delayed its final report by two weeks in an effort to reach consensus, according to an Associated Press report. A draft report of the 18-member commission was obtained by The Post.
An executive order signed by President Clinton in 1994 prohibited the use of federal funds for the creation of human embryos for research purposes. Yet under the proposed ban, privately funded scientists and doctors could still clone human embryos and perform experiments on them, The Post said, noting some commission members remain concerned about the distinction.
“The most important thing is to get some rules about ethical conduct,” said David R. Cox, a commission member and professor of genetics and pediatrics at Stanford University, in the Post article. “We’re focusing on the arena of making babies, and the rules shouldn’t rely on the source of funds.”
The commission’s recommendation found no favor with C. Ben Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., and consultant to the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission on biomedical and life issues.
“The decision to recommend that some human cloning be permitted represents a complete failure of moral nerve. There should be an unqualified, international, legal ban on human cloning, period.”
“Our concern here is that an in vitro fertilization doctor will say, ‘I’m not doing research, but using an innovative technique to help a couple with severe infertility,'” panel member Bernard Lo, director of medical ethics at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Associated Press.
It is not uncommon for in vitro clinics to use this argument to avoid scientific oversight, Lo added.
“Some of us have been saying for a long time that legal abortion was just the leading edge of a wedge which would eventually pry open a Pandora’s box of human destruction,” Mitchell said. “Here is another evidence that we were right. Improperly regulated genetic experimentation, including cloning, pushes the destruction of unborn human life from murderous to grotesque.”
Mitchell insisted there was no moral difference between a cloned human embryo and a cloned human baby. “Such a distinction is totally artificial and is meant to justify what we should find morally reprehensible,” he said.
Citing the CLC brochure, “Was Jesus an Embryo? The Ethics of Human Embryo Research and the Brave New World,” Mitchell said embryos are not “potential” human beings: “They are human beings in the process of growing and developing.” He lamented that medicine has so devalued human life that “a whole class of persons, namely human embryos, have become victims in the vicious research machine.”
Given cloning of the Scottish sheep only occurred after 276 failures, experts are unsure about the long-term physiological ramifications of this means of reproduction.
R. Alta Charo, a commission member and professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, confessed that “subtle changes may show up more in a person than in a sheep,” noted the Post article. Existing research suggests cloning often results in abnormal embryos.
When Ian Wilmut, an embryologist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, announced the successful cloning of the sheep, he said cloning people “would be ethically irresponsible.”
Wilmut and researchers at the Roslin Institute cloned the animal by taking a cell from the udder of a sheep and fusing it with another sheep’s unfertilized egg, its DNA nucleus having been removed. A spark of electricity in the lab started the egg dividing into an embryo. After several days in a culture dish, the embryo was implanted into the womb of a surrogate mother sheep.
“In just a few years, every university graduate student in biology will be able to clone a mammal,” suggested Mitchell, when the sheep cloning was first announced.
“The cloning of human beings represents uncharted territory,” Mitchell warned.
“The knowledge that privately funded researchers are permitted to create human embryos, by cloning or any other reproductive technology, for the purpose of experimentation ought not only be repugnant, but ought to raise our moral ire,” he concluded, recalling concerns raised three years ago when approval was granted for labs to create human embryos for research.

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  • Dwayne Hastings