The Magazine

Another Cloning "Breakthrough"

The world's first phony stem cells

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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Hwang's implosion leaves the field of human cloning research in a state of meltdown. Their poster boy is at best a liar, at worst a fraud and a charlatan who never created human clones at all.

This debacle raises several interesting questions: What does it tell us about the thoroughness of the peer review process? Why were younger South Korean scientists able to discover Hwang's missteps when the presumably more seasoned peer reviewers for Science failed? Will the American media take a cue from their courageous counterparts in South Korea, who pursued this story until it cracked, and finally bring skepticism to their coverage of biotechnology? More to the point, will the adult/umbilical cord blood stem cell successes that have emerged one after the other in recent years finally receive the attention they deserve in the mainstream press, which has been so intoxicated with embryonic research as virtually to ignore nonembryonic breakthroughs?

Don't count on it. The pro--cloning political forces, and their media allies, recognize the potential of the Hwang fiasco to damage their cause, so they have quickly regrouped and begun to furiously spin the story. The same voices that not long ago railed against President Bush's stem cell funding policies for supposedly allowing America to fall behind the cutting--edge research in South Korea, now indignantly blame Bush for creating a hyper--competitive atmosphere that led to Hwang's failures. "Ethics can get forgotten as other nations and private companies race to fill the void left by the president's reluctance to fund stem cell research," wrote bioethicists Arthur Caplan and Glenn McGee in the Albany Times Union. "Only a properly funded U.S. stem cell research program will guarantee oversight and the protection of all involved."

That might possibly be true if scientific fraud were the only ethical problem associated with the human cloning agenda. But it isn't. Indeed, the bioethicists should ponder how science's core values of integrity and objectivity are being corroded by the passionate political pursuit of a legal license to clone.

For years, human cloning has been promoted through propaganda techniques of misrepresentation, exaggeration, and false hope for the suffering. Take the profoundly deceptive $35 million political campaign that last year convinced California voters to pass Proposition 71, authorizing the state to borrow $3 billion to subsidize research into somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning and embryonic stem cells. In order to induce wary voters to endorse billions more in debt despite the red ink flowing catastrophically out of California's coffers, proponents promised that the state would one day garner a bounteous return from royalty and tax payments, perhaps eventually recouping all the money borrowed to fund the initial research. (Voters should have asked themselves why, if this were true, the state's numerous venture capitalists hadn't been clever enough to fork over the $3 billion.)

Thus Robert Klein, the driving force behind the initiative and now head of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, assured voters that universities and private firms receiving grants would share $1 billion or more in royalties with the state. But, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere after the election, it now appears that little, if any, royalty money will ever be returned to the state. "What Klein knew before the election was that such royalty--sharing by the state might be hampered by federal regulations, according to an attorney who helped Klein draft the initiative," the Chronicle reported. "Yet he didn't tell voters."

That wasn't all. When opponents of Proposition 71 asserted in the official ballot arguments that the initiative would subsidize human cloning, the pro--71 campaign sued to prevent the argument from being mentioned in the state's voter election guide-even though the initiative explicitly created a state constitutional right to conduct human somatic cell nuclear transfer, the scientific name for a human cloning technique. (The judge saw right through the ruse, and ruled that human cloning was at the heart of the initiative.)

Then there is the ongoing hype about the medical potential of cloning, which reached cruel heights in the wake of President Reagan's death from Alzheimer's disease. Using the widespread public mourning for Reagan as a backdrop, human cloning advocates argued that Alzheimer's could be cured if only the impediments to federally funded embryonic stem cell research were pushed out of the way.