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Obama ‘left door wide open’ for research cloning

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

WASHINGTON (BP)–When President Obama signed an executive order overturning the Bush-era restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, he went out of his way to state he was firmly opposed to human cloning — or at least it appeared that way.

In a carefully crafted statement March 9, Obama said “we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction,” which he called “dangerous,” “profoundly wrong” and which “has no place in our society or any society.”

What Obama did not say is that there are two types of cloning, and his statement referenced only one of them. Obama ruled out reproductive cloning but appeared to leave room for therapeutic or research cloning, which involves cloning an embryo in order to harvest its stem cells.

Because it necessarily involves the destruction of an embryo, therapeutic cloning research has often been called “cloning and killing” by opponents. Supporters sometimes play word games and call therapeutic cloning “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” but that simply is the scientific name for embryo cloning.

“I think [Obama] left the door wide open,” David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, told Baptist Press. “If you read specifically what he said, he said he was opposed to cloning for human reproduction. What that means is he’s just fine with cloning of human embryos for experiments. … He’s left this wide open, not just for cloning but for anything that you might want to do — animal-human hybrids or any of these types of experiments.”

If Prentice is right, taxpayers in the near future could be financing not only embryonic stem cell research but also research involving stem cells derived from cloned embryos.

Currently, both types of cloning are legal in the United States. When Obama was a U.S. senator, he was a co-sponsor of a 2005 bill that would have banned only reproductive cloning. He did not, however, sign on to a bill sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback that would have banned both reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. The bill that Obama co-sponsored defined cloning as “implanting or attempting to implant” an embryo “into a uterus or the functional equivalent of a uterus.”

Therapeutic cloning may sound far-fetched to the average American, but it is supported by the National Academy of Sciences, which for years was critical of the Bush policy and applauded Obama’s executive order. The academy’s president, in fact, attended the signing ceremony.

Scientists who back therapeutic cloning say it is needed for two reasons: 1) there may not be an adequate supply of “extra” embryos in fertility clinics and 2) cloning allows scientists to provide a genetic match to a patient. Opponents answer the second objection by pointing to an ethical alternative — induced pluriponent stem cell research (iPS) — which has been able to turn adult skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells with a genetic match to the patient. In fact, a March 6 report in the journal Cell showed that scientists were able to make iPS cells from Parkinson’s disease patients. iPS does not involve embryos.

“When the president speaks of ‘reproduction,’ he means a born baby,” author and ethicist Welsey J. Smith wrote on his blog. Smith predicted that Obama would sign a bill explicitly supporting therapeutic cloning. “… President Obama and the rest of the brave new world crowd will redefine — or better stated, misdefine — cloning and outlaw their straw man so they can pretend that cloning has been made illegal when it has been explicitly legalized on the way toward federal funding.”

The only thing preventing direct federal funding of cloning is what is known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a congressional amendment that must be renewed yearly and which prevents federal funds from being used not only for destroying an embryo but also for creating an embryo for research purposes.

Prentice, though, believes the National Institutes of Health — which Obama gave 120 days to submit guidelines for stem cell research — can easily get around the Dickey Amendment.

“As long as they did the creation of the clone with private funds and killed them with private funds, NIH could probably fund the embryonic stem cells from the clone or from the hybrid, because that’s the basic interpretation now of what this new presidential executive order says,” he said. “There are no sorts of restrictions on when the embryo was made, where it was made, how it was made.”

Said C. Ben Mitchell, a bioethics professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago and a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission: “Researchers receiving federal funds are very adept at gaming the system. They will find every loophole possible.”

But if the Dickey amendment is reversed, then federal dollars could go directly toward funding embryo cloning. The New York Times argued for reversal of the Dickey amendment in a March 10 editorial and also backed therapeutic cloning — without using the word “cloning.”

“Until that changes, scientists who want to create embryos — and extract stem cells — matched to patients with specific diseases will have to rely on private or state support,” the editorial read. ” … Congress should follow Mr. Obama’s lead and lift this prohibition so such important work can benefit from an infusion of federal dollars.”

Prentice expressed concern that NIH is setting the guidelines.

“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” he said. “The scientists are going to set their own limits. I don’t know if self-regulation is a good idea for any group, but certainly not for this bunch.”

Some also are concerned that the NIH — if it backs research on cloned embryos — will avoid the term “cloning” and instead will use the procedure’s scientific name. A stem cell glossary on the NIH website still defines somatic cell nuclear transfer in this way: “See also therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning.”

“We’ve seen a number of their supporters and a number of their scientists use that technical term to confuse the public,” Prentice said. “Despite this administration’s calls for relying on science and relying on openness and honesty, I am skeptical that the NIH will be either of those.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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