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Interview with Bernard Siegel

Bernard Siegel is the Executive Director of the Genetics Policy Institute (GPI) which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing a legal framework to advance scientific research for cures. Mr. Siegel practiced law in South Florida for nearly 3 decades before establishing GPI. In December 2002, he filed the landmark case to have a guardian for the alleged cloned baby "Eve" and is widely credited for proving that the so-called "human cloning company" was a sham. Realizing the damage cloning charlatans were having on the stem cell debate, he has recruited to his organization some of the world's preeminent scientists and has become a leading champion of science and stem cell research. He has appeared in media around the world including CNN debates with Rael of the Raelian Movement and Richard Doerflinger of the US Council of Bishops. This year his organization staged the UN Science Conference "Human Cloning Issues in all its aspects."

Would you please briefly describe what the Genetics Policy Institute is and what it does?

The Genetics Policy Institute is a non-profit organization constructing a legal framework to advance scientific research for cures. The immediate topic that we have been focused on is to draw a bright line to distinguish reproductive cloning from therapeutic cloning.

We have a very well-regarded science advisory board and legal human rights advisory board. On the science board we have some of the leading stem cell researchers in the world, including Ian Wilmut, the creator of "Dolly," Rudolf Jaenisch at MIT, Doug Melton of Harvard, and others. On the legal advisory board we have retired World Court Judge Christopher Weeramantry, Princeton emeritus international law professor Richard Falk and others.

What do you see as the benefits of cloning?

We do not see any benefits to reproductive cloning. In fact we are quite outspoken about this, saying that reproductive cloning, we believe, is a violation of international law, if not a crime against humanity. It is unethical human experimentation, and personally I regard it as a species-altering event. It is something that cannot be done safely.

However, we think that therapeutic cloning (which has several different names—it is also called somatic cell nuclear transfer, SCNT, nuclear transplantation and biomedical cloning) is tremendously important. As a matter of scientific research and medical research, it holds the hopes of understanding and treatments and even, possibly, cures for many of mankind's illnesses and medical conditions—things like spinal cord injury, Alzheimer's, neurological disorders, diabetes, Parkinson's, and such. We think it is very important that the public, the media and the key decision-makers recognize the two, which are rhetorically connected only, as having a distinction between them. And while one should be curbed and banned—that is, reproductive cloning—therapeutic cloning, we hope, can advance because of its promise.

Were President Bush's 2001 regulations on stem cell research--limiting the number of stem cell lines to receive federal funding--appropriate?

We feel that the restrictions went too far. Research cannot advance at a proper pace. First, the number of stem cell lines that were actually available was far less than originally assumed, and that was a big problem. Secondly, there is a need for the research to have more stem cell lines, and considering that the greatest source of medical research funding is the National Institutes of Health, if we do not have stem cell lines available for funding research, then the pace of the research is not going to advance. The implications of this are that promising young stem cell scientists are either not going into the field, or else we are finding somewhat of a "brain-drain" where scientists are being forced to go overseas. The dilemma of this is if you have a cutoff date (August 9, 2001 in this case), as President Bush articulated, what do we do with the 17 new stem cell lines prepared by Harvard University scientists that are now available to the world? Why should we not fund research on those new lines? Once the decision has been made that will allow some funding on stem cell lines, it makes sense to allow continued funding for others. So I think while it did not preclude the research altogether, it certainly curtailed it in a way that the scientific research could not advance adequately.

Along the lines of federal regulations--following the 2003 vote by the UN, there are virtually no restrictions on cloning for at least two years. With few restrictions and open knowledge of how to clone an embryo, how much of a threat is there of maverick scientists actively practicing reproductive cloning? What should be done about this?

I don't know that I agree entirely on the first premise, because some countries and some states have passed laws against reproductive cloning, but surely there are some big holes in the landscape here and it would be an ideal issue to handle by treaty through the United Nations. As far as the risk of experimentation, I think there is a great risk. We have Dr. Panos Zavos (who claims to have implanted a cloned egg in a woman) saying that he has done these types of experiments, and we have Dr. Severino Antinori in Italy. I place no credibility, however, in Clonaid and the Raelians. I had personal dealings with them in the case that I filed in Florida, and I do not think that they have credibility. But the others have a shred of credibility and there could be others who want to make a name for themselves. I do not think that any of them will succeed in producing a live birth any time soon, but they create an inordinate amount of mischief and create harm to women, potential miscarriages, and I think their activities should be curbed.

Some people, including the Department of Justice, feel that it would be impossible to enforce a ban solely on reproductive cloning, arguing that such a ban may end up giving resources and funding to those who want to secretly practice reproductive cloning under the guise of therapeutic cloning. Does this make anything less than a universal ban negligent?

No. I disagree with that analysis. A clear line can be drawn saying reproductive cloning is illegal and the prohibitions must be made enforceable. It would take more than just a single person to cause this to happen, and it is unlikely that if it is a clear articulation that this is a serious crime, scientists, researchers and doctors are going to engage in this practice where cloning activities are illegal. I disagree with the "slippery slope" argument that if you allow SCNT research in a petri dish that it is automatically going to result in cloned human beings walking amongst us. I do not think that is the case. I think we have a window of opportunity now, while successful application of technology is beyond reach, to draw this line. As years go by, it is going to be, perhaps, more problematic.

Why not use only adult stem cells and restrict cloning to only tissues, organs and DNA--avoiding the cloning of controversial human embryos?

I think it has been pretty much shown by most scientists, even in the adult stem cell field, that while there is some promise to that it does not have the same promise as embryonic stem cell research. That is, panacea, that is what is needed to get the job done to find potential cures for millions of people. So, I think that some opposed to embryonic stem cell research are trying to make adult stem cell research sound better than it actually is. Adult stem cells do not have the same plasticity of embryonic stem cells, and if there is a way we can properly regulate this industry (embryonic stem cell research), then I think it holds the most promise for the most people.

Do you feel that the practice of cloning devalues or poses any risks to women?

Actually, I do not. I think the use of egg donors can be made safe. It can be something that is regulated, so that there is no exploitation of women, and surely where you are able to regulate something like that properly, there should be no risk. I think in a vacuum, where you make no effort to regulate it or anything, there is always a chance for abuse. But I do not think that should be an excuse to shut down an entirely promising area of medical research holding the greatest promise of any, because of this concern that can be taken care of through regulation.

In regards to the future of cloning, do you see this as another scientific discovery with controversial beginnings but that will one day be commonplace in society?

As far as reproductive cloning, I think no one has a crystal ball and can look ahead centuries from now as to what can happen. All we can do is deal with the immediate term, and the immediate term is that it certainly cannot be done safely. There is no reason to produce a baby through reproductive cloning, so reproductive cloning should be banned. The term "cloning" is a sledgehammer word. I think that one has to always make a distinction between the technique of somatic cell nuclear transfer, which as long as it is in the dish will not lead to a human being, as long as those cells are not placed in a uterus. So I think there has to be a distinction made between reproductive cloning and medical research.

Lastly, how soon and in what way do you see therapeutic cloning affecting the general public?

Each medical condition is different. Certainly in the area of spinal cord injury and diabetes this is one of the highest priorities of many researchers. I do not think we have a timeline, to be honest, because we have just had the first therapeutically cloned stem cell line created in Korea. We are just taking the tiniest steps forward right now, as we speak. But the way science advances so swiftly, one will hope, will lead to understanding and possible treatments in a relatively short period of time.

Submitted by: Chris Moore, spring 2004 intern