Koreans Rekindle the Cloning Debate

Stem Cell Work Draws Wide Criticism

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SEATTLE, Washington, FEB. 28, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Human cloning returned to the headlines with the announcement by South Korean scientists that they had cloned human embryos. Their goal was to extract embryonic stem cells to use in medical research, the New York Times reported Feb. 12. The experiments were carried out by a team led by Dr. Woo Suk Hwang and Dr. Shin Yong Moon of Seoul National University.



Hwang acknowledged the controversial nature of the research, but argued that it was so important it should be done anyway, saying that as scientists they had an obligation to go ahead with their experiments. The research was financed by the South Korean government.

The researchers obtained 242 eggs from 16 women. Of these, 176 were selected for the cloning attempts. The cloning process then yielded 30 blastocysts, from which they were able to extract 20 inner cell masses. One of these then grew into a line of stem cells.

The Catholic Church in Korea lamented the decision to clone humans, the Vatican agency Fides reported Feb. 24. "It is truly sad that people consider cloning simply a scientific acquisition without thinking of the possible evil use of the result and the violation of human life," said Bishop Francis Xavier Ahn Myong-ok, head of the episcopate's Commission for Bioethics. "It is sad to see that the government which should be on front line to defend human life supports this research."

Scientific semantics

Advocates of cloning defended their actions by means of defining it as "therapeutic" as opposed to reproductive. During a speech to a scientific convention in Seattle, Hwang himself said reproductive cloning was clearly wrong and should be outlawed, BBC reported Feb. 13.

Outside South Korea, support for therapeutic cloning was not lacking. In a notable reversal of his previous position, Ian Wilmut, leader of the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, said that cloning humans "would be desirable under certain circumstances," the British daily Independent reported Feb. 19.

Three years ago, in a paper published in the journal Science, Wilmut had stated he could see "no ethical or moral reason" to clone people. Now, Wilmut said he believed therapeutic cloning could offer benefits. Thus, he applied for a license from the government to clone cells from people suffering from muscular dystrophy, to find new treatments.

The Independent on Feb. 15 also published an opinion article by geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge, who said he had no problems with the idea of cloning humans for therapeutic purposes.

Explaining that he has worked with embryonic stem cells from mice for more than 20 years, Lovell-Badge argued that because human embryonic stem cells can probably give rise to any cell type in the body, they offer enormous potential for therapies based on transplanting cells into a patient.

He admitted that stem cells are also found in adult tissue. But he contended that, along with research with adult cells, it made sense to also pursue the possibilities of cloned embryonic stem cells.

In the United States, Francis Fukuyama, an author and member of the presidential Council on Bioethics, in an opinion article Feb. 15 for the Washington Post, gave qualified approval for research using human embryos. Declaring himself against cloning for reproduction, he explained: "My personal belief is that human embryos have an intermediate moral status: They are not the moral equivalents of infants, but they also are not merely clumps of cells that can be treated like any other tissue samples."

He called for regulating embryo research, maintaining: "We can make use of them, as we do of dead human bodies, for medical purposes, but we do not want to permit the market alone to determine how and why they are used."

Offense against life

Critics, however, were quick to point out the fallacy of the claimed distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning.

Interviewed by the Italian daily La Stampa, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, the vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explained that in both cases an embryo is created and then killed, making the technique morally unacceptable. The moral transgression with therapeutic cloning is as serious as that done for reproductive purposes, he said. Moreover, the defense of human life should come first in medical research, he said, countering those who talk of embryonic clones as mere masses of cells.

Dr. Leon Kass, head of the president's Council on Bioethics, also criticized the experiments. In an interview published Feb. 14 in the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire, Kass warned that the current creation and early destruction of embryos opens the door to reproductive cloning in the near future. He called for a complete ban on human cloning.

Kass termed "arbitrary" the decision by scientists who say human life does not exist during the early stages of the embryo's development, thereby justifying the destruction of clones for their cells. Human life exists already at this first stage of the embryo's existence and should not be sacrificed for scientific research, he argued.

The World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations called for a total ban on the cloning of human embryos in a declaration dated Feb. 19. "It is immoral to continue to seek the support of public opinion for these projects, with the promise of imminent treatment of many chronic diseases, although there is no certainty of feasibility for many years to come, and although any preparatory investigation on animals has been deliberately skipped."

The federation also called attention to the lives lost in the process of cloning. "It is not acceptable to deliberately sacrifice the life of any human being, even if this is done in order to relieve the health problems of other human beings."

The group was also critical of attempts to gain support for cloning by promoting the benefits for sick people. "A kind of philanthropy which does not recognize the intrinsic value of human beings, although as small and powerless as embryos, is not humane," noted its declaration.

"We are convinced that, instead of being humanitarian, this attitude reflects utilitarian views, permitting the manipulation of public opinion, and providing support to areas of economic interest like research on embryonic stem cells," the federation observed. The declaration pointed out that research using adult human stem cells has already produced important results, but that this work is being surrounded in silence due to economic interests.

"Bizarre hype"

In the Independent on Feb. 15, Robert Winston, professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London, criticized the "bizarre hype surrounding cloning." Winston said that while stem cells may be useful for some diseases, they are unlikely to help in others, such as Alzheimer's, contrary to media reports. Moreover, "stem cell technology faces huge problems." He said that papers presented during a recent scientific congress in Colorado emphasized how difficult it seems to be to guarantee pure, healthy tissue from stem cells.

As well, he continued, cloning has additional hazards. "It is doubtful whether any scientific group anywhere in the world has definitely produced an entirely normal cloned animal," stated Winston.

John Paul II, in his Feb. 20 message marking the 10th anniversary of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explained that it "is necessary to increasingly sensitize researchers, especially those in the biomedical realm, on the beneficial enrichment that can arise from combining scientific rigor with the demands of anthropology and Christian ethics." Indeed, an urgent task for stem cell researchers.