TRUTH, famously the first casualty of war, is now falling victim to the latest skirmish in the biotech wars. Euphemism and doublespeak are the order of the day, and not because of timid politicians or shameless propagandists, but, shockingly, because of the eagerness of a leading university to embark on human cloning research.
Earlier this week, Stanford University announced the creation of a $12 million research center that would, among other things, produce cloned human embryos for biomedical research. This research--which its advocates now call "nuclear transplantation to produce human pluripotent stem cell lines"--involves the insertion of a person's DNA into an enucleated human egg. This produces a living, dividing, developing human embryo--a genetic copy or clone of a living individual--which researchers plan to destroy in order to extract its stem cells.
Over the past few years, such cloning experiments have been the subject of widespread public debate. In July 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by more than 100 votes, a ban on all human cloning, including the procedure now embraced by Stanford. In July 2002, the President's Council on Bioethics recommended a four-year moratorium on the production and use of cloned human embryos for biomedical research, so that the nation might debate the moral and scientific issues fully and fairly before deciding whether or not to cross this moral boundary.
Stanford's announcement is important: In a country still weighing the significance and moral dangers of taking the first steps toward human cloning, a major research university has decided to plunge ahead. Stanford seems to believe that the question of whether to harvest and exploit cloned human embryos--and perhaps eventually cloned human fetuses--is one for scientists and internal university review boards, not citizens and their democratic institutions.
Yet the Stanford scientists apparently can't decide whether to proceed brashly, as triumphant benefactors of mankind whom Congress cannot stop, or with serpentine guile, hiding what they are doing by describing it in terms impenetrable (and misleading) even to an ethically concerned public. So far--as multiple statements, press conferences, and news stories attest--they have done both. They have lied. They have misled. And they have sown confusion.
On December 10, the Associated Press reported: "Stanford Reveals Human Embryo Clone Plan." Claiming the story was "incorrect," the university immediately issued the following statement:
"Creating human stem cell lines is not equivalent to reproductive cloning. The first step in the process of creating a stem cell line involves transferring the nucleus from a cell to an egg and allowing the egg to divide. This is the same first step as in reproductive cloning. However in creating a stem cell line, cells are removed from the developing cluster. These cells can go on to form many types of tissues, but cannot on their own develop into a human."
A few hours later, the AP story--same author, different spin--had been changed: "Stanford to Develop Human Stem Cells." The same day, Stanford's spokeswoman told the Washington Post, "We're not cloning embryos, and we're not going to clone embryos."
The problem, however, is that this is not true. The "developing cluster" described in Stanford's own statement is an embryo. It is uniquely desired by scientists because it is a cloned embryo. And if implanted into a woman's uterus, it could develop into a cloned human child.
For clarity on this matter, we need turn to no other authority than the head of Stanford's new center, Dr. Irving Weissman himself.
In January 2002, Weissman chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel that issued a report on the "Scientific and Medical Aspects of Human Reproductive Cloning." The report called for a moratorium on the production of cloned children, while also describing the scientific promise of "nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells"--what most people at the time were calling "therapeutic cloning." The report put it this way:
"The experimental procedures required to produce stem cells through nuclear transplantation would consist of the transfer of a somatic cell nucleus from a patient into an enucleated egg, the in vitro culture of the embryo [emphasis added] to the blastocyst stage, and the derivation of a pluripotent ES cell line from the inner cell mass of this blastocyst."
In other words: To get the stem cells, you have to produce and destroy a cloned human embryo.
In February 2002, Weissman testified before the President's Council on Bioethics. He reaffirmed that the entity produced by transferring a nucleus into an unfertilized egg would grow "to form the blastocyst stage of embryo development, the pre-implantation embryo." And he agreed that such a cloned blastocyst destined to be disaggregated for its stem cells would be identical to the cloned blastocyst required to initiate a pregnancy--that is, to initiate the gestation of a cloned human being.
By Weissman's own definition, what Stanford announced earlier this week was, in fact, its intention to pursue embryonic cloning, even as the university simultaneously denied what it was doing. A calf does not cease to be a calf because we have produced it for veal. A cloned embryo, produced for its stem cells, does not cease to be an embryo.
Fearing public backlash, the university decided to muddy the waters even further. It released yet another statement saying that its researchers would not pursue embryonic cloning right away, but that they might do so in the future, and that in any case Weissman does not believe that producing cloned embryos by nuclear transplantation is really embryonic cloning at all. More doubletalk from one of our leading institutions of higher learning.
If we are to have sound public deliberation about these weighty matters, universities and scientists owe us spin-free speech about what they are doing. Even more important, we need public debate and political leadership--from the president, in Congress, and in the states. President Bush, when he announced his decision on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in August 2001, declared, "We have arrived at that Brave New World that seemed so distant in 1932, when Aldous Huxley wrote about human beings created in test tubes."
Today, one of our leading universities is poised to take us further down that dehumanizing road. Our elected leaders need to intervene--now, not later--by enacting at least a moratorium on such morally questionable experiments.
--William Kristol and Eric Cohen