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Cloning

Cloning has been one of the most hotly debated and ethically controversial topics in science lately, particularly since the cloning of Dolly the sheep in Scotland in 1996. More recently, the focus has turned to human cloning, and the hopes and fears involved with it.

Cloning is the process of copying a cell and creating cell lines identical to the original cell. These cells can then be used to correct damaged cells or to be implanted in a uterus for fertilization. Cloning is achieved by removing the nucleus from an egg and replacing the nucleus with a cell from the person to be cloned. Following this step, the egg may either be implanted in the uterus with hopes of pregnancy (reproductive cloning), or stem cells may be removed from the cloned egg, to later be used as healthy cells to take the place of unhealthy cells (therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer—SCNT).

Unlike animal cloning, which deals primarily with reproductive cloning, human cloning generally pertains to therapeutic. Most scientists share an opposition to human reproductive cloning, feeling that the practice is unethical. This is primarily because the consequences for the created child are unknown, and likely would result in health problems, as has been the case with cloned animals. Thus, most of the debate within the scientific and medical fields has been centered on human therapeutic cloning.

Human therapeutic cloning involves using stem cells to form new cells, which can be put in place of unhealthy or damaged cells. In therapeutic cloning, a person's own cells can be used, which reduces the chance of rejection. Some researchers believe that this can lead to cures for diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease).

Cloning has been at the forefront of scientific and bioethical research—as well as political debate—in recent years, particularly since the successful cloning of the Dolly in 1996 by PPL Therapeutics. Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned, and this led to heightened awareness and concern as to the ethical implications involved with cloning. Since 1996, numerous advances have been made in the field of cloning, including the successful generation of human embryos by Advanced Cell Technology in 2001, and possibly the unverified birth of the first cloned human ("Eve") by the group Clonaid.

While very few scientists are in favor of reproductive human cloning, many are in favor of therapeutic cloning. The goal of proponents of therapeutic cloning is to find and correct the causes of incurable diseases such as Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries. Researchers have used adult stem cells in their research as well. Adult stem cells are much less controversial, since they are not taken from an egg that could potentially become a human. However, embryonic stem cells are more desirable for their ability to adapt and transform into whatever type of cell needs correcting. The difference between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells is the origin of each. Embryonic stem cells come from unused frozen embryos created through fertility treatments, aborted embryos or terminated pregnancies, whereas adult stem cells come from placenta, cord blood, bone marrow and organ donors (from living human beings). The National Institutes of Health require that in order to receive federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, the stem cell lines must come from leftover frozen embryos.

Opponents of cloning feel that the practice is unethical and should not be allowed to continue. Reasons cited for banning cloning is necessary are that it devalues human life, it is exploitative of women, and the overall sense that it is a step toward making procreation a business. While opponents realize that most scientists are in favor of banning reproductive human cloning, they feel that without a complete ban, there will be no way to prevent the production of human beings through reproductive cloning.

These two views represent the voting blocs that appeared at the UN vote on whether to ban human cloning, which took place in November 2003. One group of countries, headed by Costa Rica and the U.S., favored a ban on all human cloning. The other group, led by France and Germany, wanted to ban reproductive human cloning, but still allow cloning for research. The final vote was 80-79 to delay any decision on the matter for two years. In the meantime, regulation of cloning remains in the hands of each country's government, with no international consensus. This, in turn, leaves the field highly unregulated, and makes many worry that someone will seize the opportunity to make a human clone without fear of much, if any, repercussion.

Currently, a number of U.S. states have laws on the books, or bills in their state congresses, dealing with the legality of human cloning. Two such bills are S. 245/H.R. 234 and S. 303/H.R. 801. S. 245/H.R. 234 is a bill that would put a total ban on human cloning in the U.S., with penalties for researchers, doctors and patients involved in both reproductive cloning and SCNT. S.303/H.R. 801, on the other hand, would penalize people for participating in the reproductive cloning of humans, but allow for highly-restricted SCNT.

Throughout the history of science, and particularly medical science, new discoveries and techniques have been met with initial concern and controversy, only to become routine in society over the years. Cornea transplants, for example, were originally not allowed on the basis that the practice was unethical, though as time has gone on, this has become a common practice that is widely accepted. Will cloning one day become a common practice, with little controversy surrounding it? If so, will this include only SCNT, or reproductive cloning as well? Only time will tell, as answers to these questions continue to unfold in both the national and international communities.


Submitted by: Chris Moore, Spring 2004 intern