MARCH 5, 1997
First it was sheep, then monkeys, cows could be next-- but not humans if President Clinton has his way. Cloning is the hot topic in the scientific community and beyond these days. The successful cloning of a sheep in Scotland has raised many scientific and ethical questions. For a closer look at the issues, Margaret Warner is joined by a panel of scientists and bio-ethicists. Be sure your voice is heard in our Online Forum.
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
March 5, 1997:
A RealAudio version of a NewsHour background report on cloning and portions of Congressional hearings on cloning is available.
March 10, 1997:
Join the Online NewsHour Forum on the Science and Ethics of cloning.
February 24, 1997:
Elizabeth Farnsworth leads a discussion of the science that lead to Dolly, the Scottish sheep cloned from another.
February 24, 1997:
Jim Lehrer discusses the ethics of cloning with a panel of bioethicists.
February 24, 1997:
A NewsHour background report on Dolly and cloning.
Browse the Online NewsHour's science coverage.
Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, Scotland report on cloning sheep.
The Genetics and Public Issues Program at The National Center for Genome Resources (NCGR) discusses cloning.
Discussion of Ethics and Social Issues in Gene Research at the Human Genome Project.
Browse the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics home page.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, to further explore the scientific and bioethical issues involved we have four guests, three of whom testified today.
Thomas Murray is an ethicist who teaches at Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine. He heads the genetic subcommittee of the Bioethics Advisory Commission that will be reporting to the President. Dr. Harold Varmus is director of the National Institutes of Health. NIH is a major biomedical research center and also dispenses the bulk of federal research funds to American scientists everywhere. And James Geraghty is president and CEO of Genzyme Transgenics, a biotechnology firm in Massachusetts that uses genetic engineering technology to produce drugs and other human therapies. They are joined by Bonnie Steinbock, a philosophy and bioethics professor at the State University of New York at Albany. Thank you all for being with us.
Dr. Varmus, did the President do the right thing, the necessary thing, in putting a ban on federal funds and asking for a moratorium on human cloning?
DR. HAROLD VARMUS, National Institutes of Health: Yes, I believe he did. Now, it is the case that NIH is forbidden by the mechanisms from supporting such research.
MARGARET WARNER: Anyway?
DR. HAROLD VARMUS: Yes. But the President did a very good thing in reassuring the public that no human cloning was going on at the moment, allowing the public to debate this issue openly, allowing the commission on which Dr. Murray serves to consider the issues that have been raised, and allowing us to proceed through a period of public debate without a need to rush to legislation, a legislation which could harm the scientific enterprise.
MARGARET WARNER: Bonnie Steinbock, how do you feel about--what's your opinion of the President's decision?
BONNIE STEINBOCK, State University of New York: Well, I think that probably it was a good thing to do politically because I think obviously people are getting upset and seem to need reassurance, and I think it's always a good idea when we have scientific new things happening and breakthroughs to have a commission as well qualified and intelligent as the NBAC is to consider very carefully these issues. But I think there's also a tendency of people to react in a kind of knee-jerk way to assume that anything new is going to be scary and going to be bad, and to not look as carefully as they might on the positive things. I don't think that it's intuitively offensive to consider any of these things. I do think it's offensive to let people die of diseases when they could have been cured.
MARGARET WARNER: Jim Geraghty, how about you, how do you feel about the President's decision?
JAMES GERAGHTY, Genzyme Transgenics: I welcome, and I think the whole biotechnology industry welcomes it as a reasonable and measured response. Our hope actually is that we can use this event and the way it has captured the popular imagination as an opportunity to engage a broader segment of society in the dialogue about the benefits of this kind of medical research and the acceptable limits of such research. And I think the commission's review provides an excellent opportunity to do that.
MARGARET WARNER: Tom Murray, this was designed in good part to give your commission time to consider this. Do you think it was a necessary step?
THOMAS MURRAY, Case Western University: I don't know if it was necessary or not. I think it was a reasonable response to a lot of fears that I've certainly become familiar with in the past week and a half. We also should mention that it included a call on private scientists, scientists without federal funding to observe a voluntary moratorium on any research in human cloning. I think that was a valuable addition.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Before we get more into this discussion, let's try to explain a couple of terms here. First of all, Jim Geraghty, to help us understand, how close is science now to human cloning, and which brought us closer, Dolly, the sheep, or the Rhesus monkeys?
JAMES GERAGHTY: I don't think as a matter of reality science is very close to it at all. As a matter of technical feasibility, it's hard to tell whether it's feasible or not. I think, more importantly, as a matter of social responsibility and the realities of why people are engaged in this kind of work today. No one engaged in this work seriously has any consideration of doing that kind of work at this time.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But scientifically, how close, Dr. Varmus, do you think we are?
DR. HAROLD VARMUS: Well, these experiments have to make all of us acknowledge that the cloning of a human being is a possibility. I would agree with Dr. Geraghty that there is no one I have heard of who inside or outside the federally funded domain of science who would entertain doing such work, but the experiments carried out by Dr. Wilmut over many years, other scientists, the scientists in Oregon, indicate that it is conceivable.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain one other term for us. What exactly is a clone, a cloned animal, let's say?
DR. HAROLD VARMUS: Yeah. I think that's an important distinction because a clone can be just a series of cells derived from a single cell. A cancer is a clone of cells. We are all clones of our original fertilized egg from which we arose. What's being described here is an experiment that was actually undertaken in a--undertaken many times over the last 60 years--to answer a fundamental question about the potential of our cell nucleus. The nucleus is the part of the cell that contains our chromosomes and our genes. And our embryologists, developmental biologists, have worried for many, many years whether every cell in our body contains the potential to make a new individual. This is more than an idle speculation because in the process of making many different kinds of cells we have, cells of our lips and of our--and of our liver and of our hearts. Cells have undergone traumatic changes in the way in which they turn on, read out the different opponents of our genetic collection which numbers about 80,000 genes. So the fundamental question is can we--can a cell unlearn what it learned and start over again? And the answer is it can.
MARGARET WARNER: And a clone, put simply, is an identical twin genetically?
DR. HAROLD VARMUS: That's correct. In fact, an identical twin, as we experience it in life--
MARGARET WARNER: In real life.
DR. HAROLD VARMUS: --is actually more identical than--than Dolly is to her parent.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Tom Murray, I'm sure all of you being involved in this field in the last week you've heard--people have asked you a lot of questions. What are the most common misconceptions out there about what a clone is and what a human clone possibly could be?
THOMAS MURRAY: Well, probably the two most prevalent are that if I were to clone myself I would, the clone would be a 50-year-old copy of me. In fact, it would be an embryo, and I would also be 50 plus years old--older than it.
MARGARET WARNER: Older.
THOMAS MURRAY: The second one is--and I think this is a very important misconception--is a belief that it would somehow be just like me in all respects.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean, when it grew up.
THOMAS MURRAY: When it grew up. When I was talking with someone last week, they asked me if it would be possible, and they were willing to have a ban in human cloning as long as we could make an exception for Mel Gibson. And I said, well, the good news is the clone would probably look like Mel Gibson; the bad news is that probably--it wouldn't be Mel Gibson. It certainly wouldn't.
MARGARET WARNER: And why not?
THOMAS MURRAY: Because we're not just the product of our genetic ground plan. We are the product of the lifetime of experiences we've had. And this person would not have Mel Gibson's parents, Mel Gibson's childhood, wouldn't fall in love with the people Mel Gibson has fallen in love with. It wouldn't make the mistakes he's made. It would be a different person.
MARGARET WARNER: Bonnie Steinbock, what kind of misconceptions do you think are out there?
BONNIE STEINBOCK: Well, I think that people have a kind of a boys from Brazil view of cloning; that there's something very scary, that you would get these robotic-like creatures who could be easily brainwashed and take over the world. And, of course, that's all nonsense. There's no more reason why a clone could be easily brainwashed than an identical twin. So I think all the thing that Tom is saying is exactly right. I also think it's important to realize that it's just asexual--I don't know if reproduction is the right word or replication--as opposed to sexual reproduction. It's not, I think, in itself necessarily a scary thing. But every time we have something new, whether it's artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, when a sperm and egg cell are joined together in a petri dish, always people are frightened of. We now have people who have pig valves in them. But when that was first done, the idea that you can put an animal part in a human being was regarded as just absolutely terrifying. So I think part of the thing we have to realize is that whatever new is scary, and that doesn't necessarily mean that it's morally wrong.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But, Jim Geraghty, then let's turn to the practical effect of say this moratorium that the President's asked everyone to observe, where do you draw the line, as Bonnie Steinbock seemed to be suggesting, between say genetic engineering that your firm does and human cloning, which is--the President's asked no one to do?
JAMES GERAGHTY: I think there is actually a very clear line. I think what we hope people will realize during this moratorium and during the discussion we hope it will generate are the things that really are being done today, not the kinds of fantasies and fictions that were just talked about, but the fact that genetic engineering is being used to develop cures for diseases that can't be cured any other way, and that even things like transgenic animals and the application of this technology in--
MARGARET WARNER: Explain what transgenic animals are.
JAMES GERAGHTY: Sure. In fact, it was related to the story that led the NewsHour this evening about these cows now that are being developed to contain a human gene. Well, that can sound very scary. These are animals that contain human genes somehow. In fact, they're going to contain one human gene that's going to cause them in their milk to produce one human protein that hopefully will be a successful therapy for, for example, cystic fibrosis, a product which may not be able to be made any other way. And that's the research that we hope will be supported, and then people will understand the value of.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you have any concern that in the controversy over and all the misconceptions we talked about that your ability to do that kind of research or development is going to be constricted at all?
JAMES GERAGHTY: That could be a concern, and that is one of the reasons we welcome this opportunity today. The congressional hearing, I felt, was a very reasoned, thoughtful response. My sense is that as people learn more about this and actually talk as we're talking here today about the scientific and ethical issues in more depth, we will help avoid that problem and help allow positive, valuable science to go forward, while things are not ethically and socially accepted today are held off.
MARGARET WARNER: Tom Murray, back to this where do you draw the line, Bonnie Steinbock seemed to be suggesting that, you know, it's just another kind of reproductive technology advance potentially. Where--do you see any problem drawing the line between what is cloning humans and all these other advances that now people use, such as in vitro fertilization?
THOMAS MURRAY: That's an important question. I think there are a variety of kinds of arguments, both philosophical, ethical arguments, and also religious arguments that the commission wants to hear. We have hearings scheduled at the end of next week, the full Bioethics Commission. And we've invited a wide scope of religious leaders to come in and speak with us. We are inviting some people who are very skeptical about human cloning and other people who, like Bonnie, say, well, let's at least hear the best arguments; we're going to have a pro-con conversation take place with the commission. So, I mean, I think we should--we shouldn't immediately and with a completely closed mind say this is impossible, but I have exactly the same response of initial repugnance that many people have. I would also encourage us to think about this--the issue of human cloning in terms of its impact on how we view good relations between parents and children, what's the meaning of worth of the child, what's the meaning of parenthood. I think it goes to questions like that which are not easy to say, state philosophically, but I think they're very fundamental and important questions.
MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Varmus, our Online NewsHour has been conducting a forum about cloning, and we're getting hundreds of questions. And one I'd like a couple of you to address that so many people ask is: What happens to genetic diversity with cloning; that is, isn't the strength, you know, the evolutionary strength of any species the fact that we're constantly mixing genes, and are clones potentially more susceptible to disease and so on?
DR. HAROLD VARMUS: Yes, of course, they are, and I think this is a question that's been particularly pertinent in the animal husbandry area or the plant husbandry area, where one has to--if one amplifies a good meat-producing strain of cattle, one has to also be aware that you may be depending very heavily on one genetically identical line of animals that is susceptible to one agent. In the case of humans it seems to me that even if we were to identify as a result of deliberations of the commission some very rare circumstances under which cloning was considered acceptable, that we would never be doing on any mass scale the--
MARGARET WARNER: So in the human it's not an issue but it might be on animals.
DR. HAROLD VARMUS: That's right.
MARGARET WARNER: Bonnie Steinbock, this might be an unfair question to ask you, but I'll ask you anyway. Do you think all scientists in America will conform to this moratorium if it were to go on for a long time?
BONNIE STEINBOCK: I really don't know the answer to that question but I assume that they would probably go along with what was considered acceptable because there would be a great deal of bad publicity if there wasn't. And I think the important ethical issues have to do with the problems of getting results that you don't expect, unintended side effects. And I'm sure that's one of the major reasons for going very slow and being very careful.
MARGARET WARNER: Tom Murray, you wanted to get back in on that.
THOMAS MURRAY: We have at least I think one good example of a voluntary moratorium of a kind that seems to have been universally observed, and that is on what's called germ line gene therapy; that is, going in and trying to change the genes of a human sperm or egg or embryo. So far as I know, no one has tried to do that, and no one is going to try to do that.
DR. HAROLD VARMUS: It's very important that there was no legislation on that issue. There was a scientific debate and a decision.
MARGARET WARNER: On this issue.
DR. HAROLD VARMUS: On the issue of germ line gene therapy, and we all recognize that there is enormous potential for using our ability to manipulate genes in the form of DNA to deliver it to patients with cystic fibrosis or other diseases, and the ethical boundaries that have been established forbidding by regulation, not by law, the use of germ line therapy has been very useful.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all very much. I know we'll be coming back to this topic.