For the past few years many of the world’s leading scientists have promoted so-called therapeutic cloning as the most promising way to produce clinically useful, genetically tailored, biologically versatile stem cells. That is why claims by a team of South Korean researchers — one in 2004 that the first cloned human embryo had been produced, then another in 2005 that the process of producing embryonic stem cell lines from cloned embryos could be done routinely and efficiently — were hailed as a watershed.
Hwang Woo Suk, the lead researcher, became an international celebrity. The best American scientists traveled to Seoul to observe his laboratory and study his techniques. Hwang called his work “holy, pure and genuine.”
But then the world discovered that it was all a scandalous fraud. Last November, we learned that Hwang had used eggs procured from junior researchers in his own lab — a violation of the Helsinki Declaration that governs medical research — and then lied to cover it up. His partner, Roh Sung Il, paid “volunteers” for additional eggs and forced them to lie about it on their consent forms. Then, in a succession of astonishing revelations, it became clear that the published data had been fabricated. Apparently no cloned human embryos were ever produced; no embryonic stem cells were ever created.
Of course, some dismiss the South Korean fraud as the work of a few bad scientific apples and even cite such errant behavior as a reason for American researchers to create and destroy cloned embryos for themselves. Harvard University recently approved research cloning, and some states have set aside public money for such experiments. The scientific argument, made with great hype, remains the same: If you want useful stem cells, you need to create and destroy cloned human embryos.
But this is exactly the wrong lesson to draw from the South Korean scandal. Cloning will always be morally corrupt because it requires deliberately creating and destroying thousands (or millions) of human embryos. At the same time, the current effort in Congress to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to include embryos left over in fertility clinics will never satisfy the scientists, because such stem cells will not give them the genetic control they want over the cells. The real lesson of the cloning scandal — and the real opportunity now before us — is to find a scientific alternative to research cloning, one that gives us the stem cells we desire without the ethical violations we abhor.
Hwang’s violation involved the exploitation of women, who undergo a risky and unpleasant procedure — first, ovarian hyperstimulation, then the insertion of a needle into their ovaries to procure the wanted oocytes — with no medical benefit to themselves. In the attempt to produce a single cloned embryo, thousands of eggs were harvested and used as raw materials.
In South Korea, the buying and selling of eggs was done in the shadows, covered up by false documents and brazen lies. This would never happen in America, researchers assure us. But as time goes on, rather than calling research cloning itself into question, some will call the ethical limits into question: Why not pay women for their eggs? Why not induce poor women to profit by risking their health? Of course, no responsible doctor could advise his patient to undergo such a procedure. But perhaps we will simply “update” basic medical ethics as well, and decide that the “good of mankind” trumps the good of individual patients.
We have seen where this amoral logic leads us — to shameful abuses of research subjects, which surely no one wants to repeat. But we have also seen, in the stem cell debate, how moral lines erode quickly — from using only “spare” embryos left over in fertility clinics to creating human embryos solely for research to creating (or trying to create) cloned embryos solely for research. What will be next? Probably proposals for “fetal farming” — the gestation of human embryos to later developmental stages, when potentially more useful stabilized stem cells can be obtained and organ primordia can be “harvested.”
Over and over again, scientists and ethicists say: Here and no farther. And then they seek to go farther, in the name of “progress.” Yet this moral challenge also presents us with a golden political opportunity. Last week the Senate agreed to consider three bioethics bills: one that would permit federal funding for research on embryos left over in fertility clinics, one that would prohibit fetal farming and one that would fund various alternative methods of producing genetically controlled, pluripotent stem cells — just the kind of stem cells we would get from cloning, but without the embryo destruction.
The first of these bills is misguided and unnecessary, and those senators who have pledged to support it should reconsider and change course. For the first time, it would use taxpayer dollars to encourage the destruction of embryos, and it would do so without giving researchers the genetically customized cells they desire. The second and third bills, however, would enable our country to explore the potential of stem cells without violating human dignity or taking human life.
In the end, the lesson of the cloning scandal is not simply that specific research guidelines were violated; it is that human cloning, even for research, is so morally problematic that its practitioners will always be covering their tracks, especially as they try to meet the false expectations of miraculous progress that they have helped create. If cloning is really so important for research, then overturning the Bush administration policy to fund research on “spare” IVF embryos is not very useful. But because cloning is so morally problematic, we need to find another way forward.
Instead of engaging in fraud and coverup, or conducting experiments that violate the moral principles of many citizens, we should look to scientific creativity for an answer. Since the cloning fraud, many scientists — such as Markus Grompe at Oregon Health & Science University and Rudolf Jaenisch at MIT — have been doing just that. And others, such as Kevin Eggan at Harvard, may have found a technique, called “cell fusion,” that would create new, versatile, genetically controlled stem cell lines by fusing existing stem cells and ordinary DNA. Scientists in Japan just announced that they may have found a way to do this without even needing an existing stem cell line.
In other words: all the benefits of research cloning without the ethical problems. Looking ahead, it is becoming increasingly likely that reprogramming adult cells to pluripotency, rather than destroying human embryos, will be the future of regenerative medicine. It offers both a more efficient and far more ethical way forward.
Of course, we should not pin all our hopes on any particular technique, which is why the bill co-sponsored by Sens. Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter (usually sharp opponents in the stem cell fight) would fund any creative proposal for advancing stem cell research without destroying nascent human life. Too often in this debate, science and ethics are regarded as being on a collision course. They need not be. For what could be more pro-science than relying upon scientific ingenuity to lead the way to stem cell advances without conducting unethical cloning experiments?
–Robert P. George is McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Eric Cohen is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of The New Atlantis.