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Thursday, February 19, 2004

The uterus: a bright line in the cloning debate

Every advance in stem cell technology is a mixed blessing. On one hand, each discovery brings us closer to therapies for a number of terrible diseases and increases our knowledge of embryonic development. On the other hand, each step forward means we have to endure another swell of the "cloning debate", second in obnoxiousness only to the "abortion debate", and the repetition of the same hysterical rhetoric we heard the last time around.

Thus, the recent report that human stem cells have been generated from cloned embryos has provoked this sort of nonsense. I see. Legislation that would ban reproductive cloning, but protect therapeutic cloning, is really the duplicitous maneuvering of BigPharma to protect reproductive cloning for a "radical agenda." Um, yeah. Ok. I think they call that paranoia, but you can call it whatever you like.

I find this sort of thing extremely tedious and I do my best to ignore it. Subconsciously, though, it must be bothering me because I am wearing the enamel off my teeth when I sleep. So, in the interests of my orthodontia, please allow me to make an obvious point about reproductive biology.

First and for the record, scientists overwhelmingly oppose reproductive cloning based on evidence. That is, the majority of cloned animals appear to be abnormal, and it would be wrong to create babies that we have good reason to believe will be deformed or sick. However, the same cells that might make a disabled person could still make perfectly good neurons, pancreatic cells, or muscle fibers. Indeed, the whole is greater (and more complicated) than the sum of its parts.

Those who would like to ban all types of cloning argue that any advances in the therapeutic arena will make it easer to clone babies. I do not deny this is true. The advent of the steam engine was good for both automobiles and for war machinery. All technology can be used to do harm. Shall we be Luddites then? Luckily, most of us choose to face technological challenges with reason and compassion rather than bury our heads in the sand.

Cloning opponents, however, assert that the slope from therapeutic cloning toward baby cloning is steep and slippery, inevitable and uncontrollable. In essence, they think there is no way to stop cloned embryos from becoming babies.

Not so. There is a very real barrier to baby cloning, and its called "implantation." I can tell you from personal experience as a woman (guys, you're just going to have to trust me on this one) that babies don't get into one's uterus by accident. Nope. Never while taking a bath or swimming in the municipal pool have I conceived a child. Embryos at the blastocyst stage, like those implanted in IVF clinics, are round and immoble. They have no tail like those stealthy sperm. Getting pregnant by IVF doesn't "just happen" after a couple of glasses of wine. You need an appointment and a doctor, and to implant a cloned embryo would be to so with the knowledge that you are very likely going to create a sick baby.

It is not unreasonable or duplicitous then to make a distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. The procedure of implantation can be criminalized. Will some people try it? Sure. Some people are cruel and selfish. And perhaps a maverick baby cloner might produce a normal baby, and nobody will be the wiser. More likely, though, the child will be abnormal, chronically sick, or die. Those responsible will be thrown in jail and everyone else will be forewarned.

The mere fact that a technology can be used for harm is not a reason to ban it, especially when a separate and premeditated action is required to subvert it toward a harmful purpose. Given the great good than can come of therapeutic cloning, we should let scientists play with embryos as much as they like. To avoid any harm, all we have to do is keep these embryos out of our uteruses. This is not as difficult as some people make it out to be.

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