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Criticism, calls for ban greet news of cloned human embryo

WASHINGTON (BP)–Widespread criticism and calls for an immediate legislative ban greeted the announcement of the first cloned human embryo.

Researchers at Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology firm in Worcester, Mass., revealed Nov. 25 their success in cloning an embryo. While the ACT spokesmen said they produced a number of embryos, only one progressed to the six-cell stage, where it stopped dividing. The researchers said their goal still is to clone an embryo from which to take stem cells to treat various diseases, a process that destroys the embryo. At this time, they do not support cloning to produce the birth of a child, they said.

That assurance did not silence critics from the White House, Congress and a variety of concerned organizations the next day.

President Bush called the cloning of an embryo “bad public policy” and “morally wrong.”

“We should not as a society grow life to destroy it,” Bush said. “And that’s exactly what’s taking place.”

The White House called for the Senate to approve a prohibition on both research and reproductive cloning passed earlier this year by the House of Representatives. Members of Congress and other cloning opponents — including Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — urged senators to act before they adjourn for the year.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., chief Senate sponsor of a comprehensive cloning ban, said an agreement reached earlier this fall with Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., to hold a vote in March no longer applied.

“This trumps the situation we were in several weeks ago,” Brownback said at a Capitol Hill news conference Nov. 26. Cloning was “a speculative issue up until Sunday,” he said.

“[March] is too late. It needs to come up now.”

The ERLC’s Land said research that destroys human embryos “is unconscionable and must no longer be permitted.”

“As Americans we must now decide whether we are going to be a country that allows the destruction of our tiniest humans for the supposed benefit of older and bigger humans,” Land said in a statement. “Unless the answer is a resounding ‘no,’ … barbarous consequences … will follow this downward spiral into a new biotech dark age.”

Cloning foes warned of some of those consequences.

“We are on the verge of having human embryo farms in laboratories” across America, said Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., at the news conference. “Most of these human beings will be used as guinea pigs in experiments, and once they are around in stockpiles it is only a matter of time before one or more will be implanted to be brought to birth.”

Ben Mitchell, a biomedical consultant for the ERLC and a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said in a statement the “only way to prevent cloning from becoming an acceptable practice is to place an immediate and comprehensive ban on human embryo cloning. If researchers do not produce embryos, there’s no way they can be destroyed in experimentation or implanted into a surrogate mother.”

Opponents criticized the timing of ACT’s work and announcement, as well as the terminology used by supporters in describing ACT’s work. The country and Congress had been occupied with the war on terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and the announcement came during a holiday weekend in order to catch opponents unprepared, critics said. They also noted at least one defender of ACT’s work has described the created being as “cellular” life, not human life.

“Each of us began our individual life as an embryo,” said Douglas Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director. “We were human when we were embryos, and these cloned embryos are human lives too. Once begun, human lives — including human lives begun by cloning — should be protected, not killed to provide biological raw material.”

The critics of embryo cloning included not only representatives of the pro-life movement but others, such as Friends of the Earth, the Center for Technology Assessment and the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.

At the Capitol Hill news conference, Brent Blackwelder said environmentalists oppose cloning because it violates the respect for nature and the “precautionary principle,” which calls for a consideration of the consequences of actions before carrying them out. Andrew Kimball of the Center for Technology Assessment said cloning is an “ethical nightmare” that exploits women.

In an article in Scientific American, three ACT researchers said they discovered in mid-October they had succeeded in producing human embryos through nuclear transplantation or somatic cell nuclear transfer. In this basic technique, the genetic material is sucked by a needle from a mature egg donated by a woman. The nucleus of a donor cell is injected into the egg, and it is incubated. The researchers also were successful in causing human eggs, without being fertilized by sperm, to develop into blastocysts, hollow entities of about 100 cells, they said. This method is called parthenogenesis.

These accomplishments “represent the dawn of a new age in medicine by demonstrating that the goal of therapeutic cloning is within reach,” the ACT researchers said.

In addition to the article in Scientific American, details of ACT’s work is described in an online publication, e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine.

The House of Representatives voted 265-162 in late July to approve the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, H.R. 2505.

At its annual meeting in June, the Southern Baptist Convention passed without opposition a resolution condemning both research and reproductive cloning.

While U.S. lawmakers seek to deal with the cloning issue, the British Parliament is seeking to approve a ban only on reproductive cloning, according to CNSNews.com. The House of Lords passed such a prohibition Nov. 26, and it was expected to become law later in the week, according to the report.