TOPICS > Science

Human Cloning

November 26, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


SUSAN DENTZER: In articles published online over the weekend, Advanced Cell Technology, a small company in Massachusetts, reported that it had successfully created cloned human embryos for the purpose of extracting their stem cells. Those are the building-block cells that ultimately develop into all the specialized cells and tissues of the human body.

Michael West, who heads Advanced Cell, described the accomplishment on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

MICHAEL WEST: We think we’ve shown that it’s going to be possible in the lifetime of many of us to take a cell from our body and, by using cloning technology, not clone a person, what we call reproductive cloning, but to do what we’re right now calling therapeutic cloning– to use the techniques of cloning to take a patient’s cell back in time, using the egg cell as a sort of a little time machine, and then making these cells that we’ve heard so much over the last few months, the embryonic stem cell, and make your own embryonic stem cells.

SUSAN DENTZER: In theory, those stem cells would then be genetically tailor-made to treat individuals suffering from a range of diseases, from diabetes to Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s. Advanced cell’s researchers reported that they first obtained human eggs from female donors, then went on to use them to create cloned embryos. None of the embryos that were created survived for more than three days, and the one that lived the longest only grew to six cells.

Critics said that’s not enough to extract embryonic stem cells, which are normally derived from embryos that are four to five days old, and that contain up to several hundred cells, but the advanced cell researchers have vowed to press ahead until they succeed in producing embryos that will in fact yield stem cells. Advanced cell’s actions amounted to an indirect challenge to President Bush’s policy on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Last August, the president said federally funded research on stem cells could proceed, but only on colonies of cells grown from embryos that were destroyed as of the date he made his announcement. The president’s decision did not apply to privately funded research, so Advanced Cell was free to proceed with its work.

MICHAEL WEST: All 60 cell lines that the president talked about having the federal government fund research on are great for in the laboratory; they aren’t useful in patients because the patient would reject them.

SUSAN DENTZER: But today the president said he opposed the company’s actions as well.

REPORTER: An important line has been crossed with the attempt to clone a human being by a private laboratory. Do you think there is any way to put this genie back in the bottle?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My reaction, Terry, is that the use of embryos to clone is wrong. We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it, and that’s exactly what’s taking place, and I have made that position very clear. I haven’t changed my mind, and this evidence today, that they’re trying to achieve that objective, to grow an embryo in order to extract a stem cell in order for that embryo to die, is bad public policy. Not only that, it’s morally wrong, in my opinion.

SUSAN DENTZER: The president said he supported legislation passed by the House of Representatives last summer to ban both therapeutic and reproductive cloning, and today some Senators said they would try to pass similar legislation soon.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: What I will proceed with at this point is to get this brought up for a vote. I think if it does come up for a vote at this time that we will have a majority of the United State Senators, with that of the vast majority of the states public, that they don’t want anything to do with human cloning. This is, nearly 90 percent of the human public does not want cloning. And I think we’ll be able to get that.

SUSAN DENTZER: But with still other lawmakers in favor of reaping the benefits of stem cell research, the outcome of a congressional debate is far from certain.

GWEN IFILL: Two guests join me to discuss the new development. Ronald Green heads an ethics advisory board for “Advanced Cell Technology,” the company at the center of today’s controversy. He’s also director of the ethics institute and chairs the Religion Department at Dartmouth. And Leon Kass is a bioethicist at the University of Chicago and co-author of “The Ethics of Human Cloning.” This summer he was selected to chair the President’s Council on Bioethics, but he is speaking tonight only for himself.

Dr. Kass, we just heard the president say that he believes that creating life in order to destroy it is what is at the center of this, and that it is wrong. Why don’t we start with you. Is he right or wrong?

LEON KASS: Well, this is certainly a moral boundary is being crossed in the developments recently announced. The new human life has been created for the purposes of experimentation. It’s not the first time, but it is… It is that moral boundary. But I think even more important, this is the first step down the road toward cloning human beings even if that’s not the intent of the people who have done this; and these people have gone ahead and crossed this moral boundary despite the fact that the vast majority of the American people are opposed to human cloning of all sorts, are opposed to creating embryos for research purposes.

The Congress of the United States by a margin of over 100 votes, including 60 Democrats, enacted legislation designed to stop all human cloning from the very start. Here we have a group of entrepreneurs who, for their own good reasons and confident that their good intentions are sufficient unto the day, crossed this line in defiance of all of these things. I don’t think that’s the right way for us to proceed.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Green, has this moral boundary been crossed?

RONALD GREEN: No, I really don’t believe so. It has long been permissible to generate embryos in the private sector. It’s done by the tens of thousands every year for reproductive purposes, when couples use in vitro fertilization and create many more embryos than they can use and then discard them. So I don’t think a particular line has been crossed here in that regard. In fact I think the critical thing here is that this research has enormous life-saving potential. And I really would like to urge a very sharp distinction between reproductive cloning on the one side, which is the effort to produce a human child or baby, and therapeutic cloning, which aims at producing stem cell for lifesaving purposes.

GWEN IFILL: Explain that distinction because you’re talking about a distinction about how the stem cells would be used not what they could be used for.

RONALD GREEN: Well, I think that the critical issue here is to really have firm regulations and rules and laws in effect that prohibits reproductive cloning. I think that can be done. I actually would hope and I know that the scientists at Advanced Cell Technology hope that the Senate and others will go ahead and prohibit reproductive cloning in the future and criminalize that behavior.

Nobody is really arguing that point seriously in the scientific community. But what we’re saying is don’t prevent this research, which puts a limit on how far you can go with these cloned organisms, and that can produce lifesaving tissues, nor organs for individuals who are seriously ill, to prohibit therapeutic cloning in the effort to stop reproductive cloning is going too far.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Kass, is that a distinction with enough of a difference between therapeutic cloning, which is designed to help people who are ill as opposed to reproductive cloning, which is designed to create new beings?

LEON KASS: It is a distinction that makes some sense though the name therapeutic cloning is at the moment science fiction. One should be very careful about taking advantage of the hopes of the people seriously ill and their family members to promise them the moon. We do not at this point have a single instance of a human disease cured by stem cells, whether from embryos or from adults. We do not have a single animal model in which cells or stem cells derived from embryonic clones, say, of mice have been used in fact to cure those diseases.

The idea that 50, 75 years down the road each of us will be able to produce our little embryonic clone so that we can get our own tissue back is pie in the sky at the moment and would involve among other things something not much discussed the enormous co-modification of women’s reproductive tissue. Where will we get all these eggs to produce these vast number of embryos to extract these cells.

GWEN IFILL: Let me address that point to Professor Green, because as an ethics advisor to this group you oversaw the plan with which they put in place to harvest women’s eggs for this experiment. What was your role?

RONALD GREEN: That’s correct. We probably spent 80 percent of our time trying to create an ethically responsible egg donor program for this research. And we found, in fact one of the most surprising findings in the course of our work that was that there are many, many women out there who want to donate their eggs for this purpose or provide their eggs because they’ve had family members who are ill, who have suffered from these things diabetes or Parkinson’s Disease.

GWEN IFILL: You’re not talking about donation in this case – excuse me for interrupting. You’re talking about $4,000, right, payment?

RONALD GREEN: Women are in fact compensated at the same rate that is paid for those who provide eggs for reproductive purposes. And that’s partly conceptualized in terms of the time and effort. This is a very invasive procedure. They have to inject themselves with medications for days on end and undergo a procedure whereby the eggs are harvested. It works out to a very modest payment for them.

I want to repeat that one of the things that we are finding in the questionnaires that we put to these women when we ask them why they’re doing it, overwhelmingly they say, “I want to make a contribution to the advancement of medical science.” And I don’t see why women should be prohibited from doing that. I don’t think why that’s CO-modification

GWEN IFILL: Well, Dr. Kass, let’s talk about the advance then of medical science. From what you have read about what Advance Cell Technology has released today or yesterday in this report, do you believe that they have actually made strides in medical science? Is there proof that what they have discovered actually is going to take us to the next step?

LEON KASS: Oh, I think the advance is certainly not an advance in medical science. There is a small technical step — it is rather under whelming, a few cell divisions. I don’t think anybody is astonished that if you fiddle around with the human egg and introduce this material you might produce some cell division. It’s a long way from this to this great promise of rejection- proof tissues for transplantation. The other important thing I think to say that is there is a lot of blithe talk about how we could draw the line between the use of embryos for research and the use of cloned embryos in reproduction, but we don’t have the mechanism in place and I rather doubt that we can have it.

Once cloned embryos are available in the laboratory having been produced for research nothing prevents them from being used for reproductive purposes. These activities take place protected by industrial secrecy. When they move over into the in vitro clinics, they will be protected by the secrecy of the doctor-patient relationship and should an illicit, so-called illicit clonal pregnancy be discovered, no one is going to move to force the woman to abort. It seems to me that before anyone starts down the road to creating any kind of cloned embryos, we should be very confident that we not only can imagine effective bans on reproductive cloning but we actually have some effort to put those in place. To this point we haven’t done so.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Green, this experiment that was written about that we’re all talking about here didn’t actually produce a currently living human embryo. Did the researchers decide to publish their findings prematurely?

RONALD GREEN: No, I don’t think so. I think what their aim was — was to be as public as they possibly could about this research. Yes, these are halting first steps. It is a long way, I think, to cures and therapies, but you have to start the first steps. I can tell you this: They’ve struggled for months even to get to this point. And they’ve learned an enormous amount that they wanted to share with the public. So I think that this is just the beginning of something, but to say because it’s still a distant goal, to stop it now, that makes no sense to me at all.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Green, the debate here in Washington is about the public role and public limits being placed on this kind of research. Do you think that the private sector is racing ahead of the public debate on this subject?

RONALD GREEN: Well, I think we as a society for better or worse have come up with some public sector rules, which are very restrictive. Many scientists and ethicists don’t agree with the public sector rules on stem cell research. That’s fine. That’s the public sector. That’s where the majority have voted. It doesn’t seem right to me, however, now to extend that as well to the private sector where people are not using public resources, they’re using their own resources and trying within the limits of available and existing law to save human lives. I don’t see why that should be prohibited.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Kass, your response to the same question given that the House has passed the bill which would ban all public and private human cloning experimentation.

LEON KASS: For the most part it seems to me we do in general a good relation between public and private initiatives here. But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re standing at a critical moment in human history. It is given to this generation to decide whether and how quickly we mean to move down the road toward the brave new world.

With respect to decisions like that, I don’t think that this should be business as usual with a naive hope that we can somehow manage the untoward consequences should they occur. This would be like saying that someone who today… 50 years ago had decided that he was going to undertake the splitting of the atom because he was interested in the peaceful uses of atomic energy but wasn’t interested in making bombs. Question: Should that have been a decision left to private entrepreneurs or should that be a public decision? I think we’re facing a momentous decision regarding the human future, and it is not for business as usual. The public should be heard.

GWEN IFILL: A slippery slope argument?

LEON KASS: Well, we know where this might lead if we’re not careful. The public is in the midst of a large debate. The national bioethics advisory commission encouraged a moratorium on human cloning and a ban on it temporarily, asked us to revisit this. It’s one of my hopes for the new council on bioethics that we can help the president and help the country as a whole find our way to a more wise path.

GWEN IFILL: Let me pose that same question about the slippery slope to Professor Green.

RONALD GREEN: Well, I think there are risks and there are dangers, but the slippery slope goes in other directions. If we prohibit therapeutic cloning now, we also prevent the development of all these dramatic and potentially remarkable new therapies and cures. I would argue that we should now take the step of drawing the line at reproductive cloning. That line is very clear. We can criminalize that. Michael West and the people at Advanced Cell Technology will not disobey that rule. They’re not going to bankrupt their company. Why is it appropriate to ban the entire area and not reproductive cloning?

GWEN IFILL: Thank you both for joining us.