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In discussing cloning, let’s be honest

Editor’s note: For a Q&A about stem cell research click here .

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When I was a kid I would often get up early on Saturday mornings, make a bowl of cereal and watch cartoons. One of my favorite cartoon characters was the speedy Accelleratii Incredibus. And, like all children, I never got tired of seeing his menace, Carnivorous Vulgaris, fall off a cliff.

Confused? I’m talking, of course, about Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, two characters that Warner Brothers often provided with supposed scientific names. Road Runner cartoons were part of the one-hour Looney Tunes cartoon special, which included short clips of my other favorite characters, including Bugs Bunny.

Americans could learn a lot from these cartoons of yesterday, because I’m afraid we’re on the verge of engaging in Looney Tunes logic when it comes to discussing the issue of cloning in the wake of President Obama’s executive order on embryonic stem cell research.

Take, for instance, an editorial that ran in The New York Times March 16 urging the National Institutes of Health — which Obama gave 120 days to set guidelines — to broaden “the range of stem cells that can be studied.”

“Scientists believe that one way to obtain the matched cells needed to study diseases is to use a cell from an adult afflicted with that disease to create a genetically matched embryo and extract its stem cells,” the editorial read. “This approach — known as somatic cell nuclear transfer — is difficult, and no one has yet done it.”

Sounds wonderful, huh? We’ll apply this tongue-twisting procedure known as somatic cell nuclear transfer and everyone will be healed. There’s only one problem. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is the scientific name for cloning. The New York Times editorial board endorsed human cloning, and few noticed.

I doubt that The New York Times plays word games when writing other stories. For instance, I bet that when it wrote about the bald eagle being taken off the endangered species list, it didn’t refer to America’s national bird as the “haliaeetus leucocephalus” (the scientific name for bald eagles). No, that would have confused readers. But because Americans are far less likely to support cloning if we use the c-word, The Times went the Looney Tunes route.

If America is going to have a debate about cloning — as it appears we’re on the verge of doing — we all should at least be honest. There are two categories of cloning: 1) reproductive cloning, in which a cloned embryo is placed inside a woman in hopes that it will implant and grow into a full-sized baby, and 2) research or therapeutic cloning, in which an embryo is cloned in order to harvest its stem cells — a procedure that of course destroys the embryo. In each instance, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is used to create the embryo. The only difference is what is done with the embryo.

Don’t believe me? Then check out the National Institutes of Health’s own online glossary on stem cell research (stemcells.nih.gov/info/glossary.asp). There, under the definition of somatic cell nuclear transfer, it says, “SCNT can be used for therapeutic or reproductive purposes, but the initial stage that combines an enucleated egg and a somatic cell nucleus is the same. See also therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning.”

It’s important to keep all this in mind when parsing President Obama’s March 9 words concerning cloning, in which he said he would make certain the government “never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.” The Associated Press immediately picked up that sentence and sent out a story worldwide with a first sentence proclaiming, “President Barack Obama says human cloning is ‘dangerous, profoundly wrong’ and has no place in society.” Headlines screamed: “Obama says no to human cloning.”

I wish that was true.

Sadly, Obama only drew the line at reproductive cloning. That’s been his position for at least several years. When a senator, he was a co-sponsor of a bill that would have prohibited reproductive cloning while leaving therapeutic cloning legal. He did not, though, sign on to a Senate bill that would have banned both types of cloning.

When Americans think of clones, they think of walking, talking, breathing people. They think of an army of clones as depicted in the latest “Star Wars” movies. They don’t think of embryos in a Petri dish. Obama and his allies know this, and that’s why they’ve chosen to say they’re opposed to cloning, when in fact, they’re probably not.

The NIH glossary — as well as common sense — defines a clone as an “identical” copy “of a molecule, cell, or organism.” Although the NIH’s own glossary remains honest, the fear among pro-lifers is that in issuing its guidelines, the NIH won’t be so forthright. The NIH may recommend that federal tax dollars go toward funding research not only on stem cell lines derived from “excess” embryos, but also on stem cell lines taken from cloned embryos — all while not calling it “cloning.”

The only thing keeping Americans from directly funding scientists’ attempts at research cloning is what is called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment — but some in Congress are aiming for that, too, and want to see it overturned.

It’s one thing to argue for funding of research cloning. It’s another thing to argue for its funding while engaging in word games meant to confuse the public — or not acknowledging it at all.

Pro-lifers in Missouri have seen this movie before. In 2006, Missourians went to the polls to vote on Amendment 2, a constitutional amendment that prohibited embryonic stem cell research from ever being banned. The ballot language — approved by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who backed the proposal — said the amendment would “ban human cloning or attempted cloning.” The 2,000-word text of the amendment, though, said something entirely different. It defined cloning as an attempt “to implant in a uterus” an embryo; then, several paragraphs later, it actually prohibited the banning of “somatic cell nuclear transfer.” In other words, all the amendment did was ban reproductive cloning while allowing research cloning. Amidst all the confusion about the language, it passed, 51-49 percent.

That same year, New Scientist magazine reported that scientists attending the American Society of Human Genetics conference were urged to use the phrase “somatic cell nuclear transfer” instead of “therapeutic cloning” — simply to avoid the dreaded c-word.

Supporters of research cloning say its funding is necessary in order to provide a limitless supply of stem cells but also to provide — as The New York Times implied — a stem cell that genetically matches a patient. The NIH, though, would be better served to recommend an increase in funding for what are known as iPS stem cells , which are created from everyday skin cells and also provide a genetic match but don’t require cloning or embryos at all — and which actually have seen laboratory successes.

Is America on the verge of a scenario where scientists, at taxpayer expense, quietly create hundreds of clones in laboratories across the nation, all with the approval of the administration and Congress but with the large majority of Americans unaware? Are we about to create life in order to destroy that very life — with taxpayers picking up the tab? We could be, if America doesn’t do its homework — and if scientists, politicians and some media members aren’t forthright and continue using Looney Tunes logic.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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