Cloning Confusion

It should come as no surprise that cloning foe Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and research advocate Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) used entirely different terminology when they spoke at news conferences last Wednesday. Brownback knows he can pack a far stronger punch bellowing about a "threat to the sanctity of life" than speaking carefully -- as Feinstein did on Wednesday -- about "nuclear transplantation." In the coming months, Brownback and his allies will seek a complete ban on cloning research. And they're going to play word games to get it.

It's an often-misunderstood aspect of the debate that both parties in this battle want a ban on reproductive cloning -- the kind that gave us Dolly the sheep and the rumored Raelian baby, the stuff of evil-octuplet nightmares. And even though Brownback and his crew -- which includes President Bush and Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) -- would like everyone to believe that's the whole story, cloning research really falls into two distinct camps. As of last Wednesday, Feinstein and Sens. Hatch (R-Utah), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Zell Miller (D-Ga.) have introduced new legislation that recognizes an important distinction in the cloning debate. Their bill would ban reproductive cloning outright, place harsh penalties on any attempt to create carbon-copy babies (up to 10 years in federal prison plus a $1 million fine) and impose strict regulations on cloning studies. But it would also clear the way for continuation of the other arm of cloning research -- therapeutic cloning, which may someday be used to cure disease.

If the term "therapeutic cloning" seems foreign to most Americans, it's because it probably sits on a bulletin board of taboo words somewhere in the White House. Never mind that this process -- by which scientists replace the chromosome-containing nucleus of an egg cell with the nucleus from an adult patient to produce embryonic stem cells that give rise to all of the human body's 200 cell types and may someday be implanted to repair tissue damage -- is one of the most promising cures for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimers, Lou Gehrig's disease and diabetes. Never mind that lab-mice experiments already indicate the possibility of such cures. And never mind that some researchers foresee therapeutic cloning tests on Parkinson's patients beginning by 2009. Conservative anti-research hard-liners are determined to blur the distinction between Raelian cloning and therapeutic cloning -- and they would have a confused American public believe that a bizarre cult leader and an Alzheimer's patient occupy the same moral plane when it comes to cloning research.

True, the President's Council on Bioethics, chaired by anti-cloning cop Leon Kass, did recognize the distinction between reproductive and therapeutic cloning, and developed "accurate terminology" to distinguish the practice of "cloning-to-produce-children" from "cloning-for-biomedical-research." It's just that the White House and its allies never use that "accurate terminology" -- and with good reason.

The administration and other right-wingers seem to have two major strategies to glom reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning into one ugly threat. The first -- exemplified by Bush's State of the Union call to "set a high standard for humanity and pass a law against all human cloning" -- is to talk about cloning in such general terms that Americans associate the entire category of research with the latest sensational news. Understandably, support for embryonic research wanes when the public's most visible example is a Raelian clone.

The Dec. 28 announcement that Raelians -- a sect founded by a Frenchman who says he boarded a spaceship and learned that human life was created by aliens -- claimed to have cloned a baby was an immediate setback for therapeutic cloning proponents. Not coincidentally, just hours after the announcement, the White House called on the House to develop a bipartisan bill that would ban all forms of cloning. Brownback joined in the hoopla at a Jan. 29 science subcommittee hearing. "The threat presented to us by the Raelians," he explained, "is one that should refocus our attention on the immediacy of passing a permanent and comprehensive ban on all human cloning."

Brownback isn't alone in his fear mongering, and generalizations about cloning didn't just begin in 2003. In an Aug. 9, 2001, speech, Bush rallied support for new restrictions on stem-cell lines by comparing therapeutic cloning to the dystopia of science fiction. "We have arrived at that brave new world," he said, "that seemed so distant in 1932 when Aldous Huxley wrote about human beings created in test tubes in what he called a 'hatchery.'" Bush went on to say that he would approve federal funding for stem-cell research, but only for embryonic stem-cell lines in existence at the time, of which he said there were more than 60. Yet the National Institutes of Health's Web site currently shows that only nine stem-cell colonies are available to researchers under Bush's restrictions. Meanwhile, right-wingers continue Bush's strategy of equating cloning with science fiction in an effort to, for lack of a better phrase, give Americans the creeps. Sen. Brownback titled his statement last Wednesday, "The Sanctity of Life in a Brave New World: A Manifesto on Biotechnology and Human Dignity."

"Human dignity" is an awfully weighty topic for one such manifesto, and so is the entire empire of cloning research. As stem-cell biologist Irv Weissman recently told the LA Weekly, "Cloning has as many meanings to a scientist as ice to an Eskimo or love to Oprah Winfrey." Unfortunately, cloning's most vigilant opponents see no need to address the variety within this science, and the public remains uninformed about the pros and cons of the technology. Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Penn.) told reporters in January, "Most people find the very idea of cloning humans to be very disturbing . . . and I think they oppose it, regardless of the purpose for which the cloning was intended."

But when the public is given nuanced choices on cloning, the politics of the issue change substantially -- which is exactly what conservatives are scared of and why they keep trying to confuse and obfuscate at every turn. Seventy-seven percent of respondents to a 2002 Pew Research Center Poll said they opposed "the cloning of human beings." But when asked if they felt that research toward medical cures or protecting human embryos was a higher priority, they gave priority to research, 47 percent to 39 percent.

When cloning foes tire of gross generalizations, they like to design their own "accurate" vocabulary to describe the complicated process of nuclear transplantation. Because an embryo is destroyed within two weeks of its creation (when researchers extract the stem cells), some have spoken of the experiment as "creating life to destroy life," and in the Jan. 29 subcommittee hearing, Brownback termed it "destructive cloning" -- not a terribly appealing, or scientific, term.

Last October, Bush took the notion of embryo-as-life one step further and modified the Health and Human Services charter to recategorize embryos and fetuses as "human subjects" that deserve special protection during scientific experimentation. Abortion-rights politics have always been a significant component of the cloning debate, and the argument that life starts with the very first cell has been advanced by many right-to-lifers.

Many but not all. The staunchly anti-abortion Hatch has been one of the Senate's most vocal supporters of therapeutic cloning, and he spoke eloquently about his reconciliation of the two ideologies in the Jan. 29 hearing. "A critical feature of being pro-life is helping the living," he said. "Helping those millions of American families struggling with the challenges of debilitating diseases is exactly what stem-cell research [from therapeutic cloning] promises."

And so it is no surprise that the legislation Hatch introduced along with Feinstein last Wednesday specifies that embryos used in therapeutic cloning must be unfertilized -- further discrediting Brownback's contention that "there is only one type of cloning and, when successful, always results in the creation of a young human." Utilizing a technology called somatic cell nuclear transfer, stem cells may be extracted from an unfertilized egg. These unfertilized embryos would not be implanted in a womb; nor would they lead to live births.

Yet Brownback and Landrieu remain determined to enact a broad cloning ban. With their bill and the measure sponsored by Hatch and Feinstein perhaps headed for a decisive congressional showdown sometime this spring, the obfuscation is only likely to increase. If the cloning foes succeed in overriding reasoned debate with word games, it is the living who will suffer -- which is why, in the end, this is no game at all.

Heidi Pauken is an editorial assistant at the Prospect.