The Magazine

An Embryo by Any Other Name

A bill that claims to be against cloning isn't.

May 5, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 33 • By JIM TONKOWICH
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IN THE UNITED STATES SENATE there is proposed legislation sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch and Dianne Feinstein, S.303, titled "A bill to prohibit human cloning and protect stem cell research." Despite this label--and Sen. Arlen Specter's insistence that the bill would ban "all" human cloning--the legislation actually would ban the implantation of a cloned embryo into a uterus, while allowing human cloning for medical research. Welcome to Newspeak.

In the real world, "cloning" is a short way of saying "somatic cell nuclear transplantation"--that is, the removal of the genetic material from an egg cell and its replacement with the genetic material of another human cell. This produces what the bill calls an "unfertilized blastocyst." In the real world, there is no such thing: The product of cloning is simply a human embryo. But then, avoiding simplicity and taking refuge in confusion seems to be the game plan.

Whether Specter himself is confused is a matter for speculation, but the public is certainly meant to be confused by what Douglas Johnson of National Right to Life describes as "linguistic cloaking devices."

Sen. Orrin Hatch contributes the idiosyncratic belief that an embryo is only an embryo if it happens to be in a uterus. Outside the uterus, it is just . . . presumably an "unfertilized blastocyst." Either way, it's fine with Hatch if you exploit it for parts. With artificial wombs just around the corner, cloning enthusiasts no doubt will use the same logic to argue that their pals in the biotech industry should be allowed to grow embryos and fetuses for spare parts and medical experimentation hitherto unthinkable.

Scientists prominent in this twilight zone include Dr. David Baltimore of Caltech. Baltimore is an avid supporter of embryonic stem cells, and wants nothing to do with adult stem cells since he believes they only cloud the argument. In the Wall Street Journal, Baltimore said that embryonic stem cells "hold remarkable promise for reversing the devastations of human disease." This tugs on American heartstrings. The problem is that there is no evidence--none at all--that embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos will ever allow anyone to walk again or cure anyone's Parkinson's or restore anyone's grandma's memory.

Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in January, Rep. David Weldon, M.D., entered 80 journal articles into the record. They document peer-reviewed studies of human therapies using adult stem cells. Weldon defied those who babble on about the "remarkable promise" of embryonic stem cells to cite even one study indicating that there is "hope" for cures using embryonic stem cells from human clones. No one took him up then, and no one has taken him up since. There are no such studies. In fact, after more than 15 years of work on embryonic stem cells, researchers have yet to develop an animal model, let alone a human model. That happy little white rat that ran around on TV because his broken spine had been healed by embryonic stem cells died a few weeks later, its body bloated with tumors resulting from the out of control growth of the embryonic stem cells.

At a Judicial Committee hearing on March 19, Sen. Dianne Feinstein mentioned Emma Arvadon, a little girl with juvenile diabetes. Sen. Feinstein wants this ailing child to receive embryonic stem cells to recreate the cells in her body that should be producing insulin. Now, Sen. Feinstein knows that animal clones often have genetic abnormalities. This is why she is against producing cloned babies. Is she willing to inject stem cells from clones--complete with genetic abnormalities--into children with diabetes? Presumably not. Any clone used for such a purpose will have to be genetically normal. And once such genetically normal clones are at hand, who will want to legislate against their implantation and birth? The Hatch/Feinstein bill is the perfect vehicle for spurring scientists to perfect the techniques that will result in cloned babies.

Much of the confusion goes away once one realizes that the key letters in this debate are not DNA, but IPO--initial public offering. Biotech is the high-tech of the twenty-first century. And right now, biotech entrepreneurs are selling what computer types call vaporware to raise the needed cash.