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Will the U.S. Senate Permit the Opening of Human Embryo Farms?

Feb 6, 2002 | Killing Embryos

[Editor’s note: What follows is adapted from remarks by NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson at an NRLC press conference held in Washington, D.C., on January 22, 2002, which was broadcast live on C-SPAN. Those remarks have been expanded and updated for publication here. Comments or questions on this material can be addressed to Legfederal@aol.com.]

The most significant pro-life issue to face Congress during the immediate future is whether human embryo farms will be permitted to start up in the United States.

In late November, the Massachusetts biotech firm Advanced Cell Technology announced that it had succeeded in cloning several human embryos, who reached at most the six-cell stage, then died. Soon thereafter, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) reluctantly agreed to allow the Senate to deal directly with freestanding legislation pertaining to human cloning. That debate is expected to occur in March.

The House of Representatives last summer passed the Weldon-Stupak bill (H.R. 2505), to ban the cloning of human embryos, by a 103-vote margin. The same bill is sponsored in the Senate by Senator Sam Brownback (R-Ks.) as S. 1899. President Bush strongly supports that bill and is eager to sign it into law.

But Senator Daschle and some other key Democratic senators, as well as a few Republican senators such as Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), are working overtime to block this legislation. If they succeed, they will pave the way for the establishment of commercial “hatcheries” of cloned human embryos, who will be killed to obtain their stem cells or in other lethal procedures.

Last summer, Majority Leader Daschle expressed grave reservations about all forms of human cloning, but now he seems determined to block enactment of the ban on cloning human embryos. Representing South Dakota as he does, Senator Daschle has long held himself up as a defender of the family farmer — but I doubt that his new role as defender of the human embryo farmer reflects the thinking of most of his constituents. Still, there is reason to fear that he will do his best to rig the procedural situation to the maximum disadvantage of the Brownback bill.

The powerful Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is attempting to block enactment of the genuine ban on human cloning by pushing for counterfeit legislation that would actually legitimate and protect human embryo assembly lines. The BIO-backed policy is currently incorporated in Senator Harkin’s S. 1893 and in Senator Feinstein’s S. 1758.

[Note: to see the text of and list of cosponsors for any bill in Congress, go to the website http://thomas.loc.gov.]

These bills are labeled as bans on human cloning, but they are not. They are instead something radically different: criminal prohibitions on the implantation of any cloned human embryo in a womb.

But the Harkin and Feinstein bills are remarkable in another respect as well: They would impose an unprecedented federal mandate that a certain class of human individuals must be killed, with severe penalties for non-compliance. Under such a law, if federal law enforcement authorities learned that a researcher or private individual planned to actually implant any cloned embryos in women’s wombs, the government would intervene to ensure that every human embryo dies.

Shifting Ground

It is worthwhile to note how our opponents are trying to shift their ground on the question of cloning human embryos — or, as some of them call it, “therapeutic cloning.”

Before the House passed the ban on July 31, and for some time thereafter, many prominent lawmakers sharply distinguished between stem cell research using so-called “spare” embryos, for which they expressed support, and the possibility of research on embryos specially created to be used in research — by cloning or otherwise — which they took pains to oppose.

To cite just one example among many, on September 5 a senior Democratic senator, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, at a hearing on embryonic stem cell research, used the term “hatchery” to refer to proposals to specially create human embryos for the purpose of research, and he added, “I vehemently oppose that.”

On August 1, immediately after the House passed the bill to ban the cloning of human embryos, Senator Daschle himself said, “I think it’s unfortunate that the question of cloning is becoming interrelated in some of the stories to the question of stem cell research, embryonic stem cell research. I am very, very strongly in support of the need to advance embryonic stem cell research. That is critical. I would hope, though, that we could draw a distinction between that and human cloning. I’m opposed to human cloning. I think virtually every one of my colleagues is opposed to human cloning. I’m very uncomfortable with even cloning for research purposes.”

On August 19, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press. Host Tim Russert asked him for his reaction to President Bush’s August 9 speech on embryonic stem cell research. Although Russert had not asked about cloning, Gephardt interjected, “Obviously, we don’t want cloning. Nobody is for cloning.” A minute later — again without being asked — Gephardt said, “We passed a law saying no cloning and I think that’s the law that we ought to follow.”

Even as he implicitly claimed credit for passage of the Weldon-Stupak bill and urged compliance with its principles, Mr. Gephardt neglected to mention that he had voted against it (although it was supported by 63 other House Democrats, and by 200 out of 219 House Republicans).

In making these remarks last summer, these Democratic leaders clearly were acutely aware that the public has expressed strong opposition to all forms of human cloning. For example, a national poll of adult Americans conducted in early June by International Communications Research asked, “Should scientists be allowed to use human cloning to create a supply of human embryos to be destroyed in medical research?,” to which 86% replied “no,” while only 10% replied “yes.”

However, the September 11 terrorist attacks and ensuing events, and the congressional and public preoccupation with security and economic issues, has allowed the biotech industry and other pro-cloning forces time to prepare more developed strategies for manipulating media coverage and, they hope, public opinion.

They have had some success. In late November, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) announced that it had succeeded in cloning several human embryos. The widely publicized development was applauded by the leadership of certain disease advocacy groups, including some of the same individuals who a few short months earlier were assuring the public that the furthest thing from their minds was to propose that human embryos should be created specifically for research purposes. The ACT announcement was defended by Democratic Leader Daschle as an advance in stem cell research — a complete reversal of his insistence in August that these two issues should be kept entirely separate.

Adoption of Euphemisms

In order for there to be a well-informed public debate on this matter, media gatekeepers and advocates for groups purporting to speak for the scientific community need to approach this issue with more intellectual honesty than we’ve seen in some recent pronouncements.

To better conceal from the public what they wish to do, the biotech industry’s public relations operatives have a campaign underway to persuade the news media and researchers to abandon long-accepted neutral biological terms, including even “embryo” and “cloning,” in favor of newly coined euphemisms.

For example, some pro-cloning advocates have recently begun to insist that the individual human organisms produced by human cloning would not really be “human embryos.” Rather, they suggest, these developing individuals should be called by any of several various recently minted terms, such as “activated egg.” [See “The Amazing Vanishing Embryo Trick,” August 2001 NRL News, page 14.]

When pressed, however, they admit that if implanted, one of these developing individuals could well be born alive, as has already occurred with various species of mammals, including monkeys. The distinction, they explain, is that they do not currently intend to implant them, therefore (they argue) they are not really “embryos.” This notion that one may define the same developing human entity as either a “human embryo” or as mere “cells,” depending only on what one intends to do with that developing individual, is more akin to magical thinking than science.

By this logic, if a doctor created a cloned human embryo intending to dissect her, he has produced only a cluster of “cells” — but if he suddenly changes his mind and decides to implant her in a willing mother’s uterus, then that same entity suddenly and magically becomes a “human embryo.”

One need only consult any standard biology textbook to find out what an “embryo” is. It is an individual member of a species, possessing a complete genetic package, at the early stages of that individual’s development. Dolly the sheep, for example, started out her individualized existence as a cloned sheep embryo.

Will cloning with human genetic material, if successfully performed, result in creation of a human embryo? Of course it will. The top scientists at ACT, Michael West and Robert Lanza, along with Ronald Green of Dartmouth and other prominent advocates of embryo research, co-authored an article on cloning that appeared in the December 27, 2000, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. They wrote “because therapeutic cloning requires the creation and disaggregation ex utero of blastocyst stage embryos, this technique raises complex ethical questions.”

In other words, they admitted that there are “ethical questions” precisely because what they are trying to do is to deliberately create human embryos for the purpose of using them in research that will kill them. The biological realities and ethical problems remain the same now, 13 months later, and should not be obscured by journalistic adoption of contrived euphemistic jargon.

[For quotes in which numerous other researchers and scientific bodies acknowledged that cloning will create true human embryos, see “Scientists Say >Therapeutic Cloning’ Creates a Human Embryo,” www.nrlc.org/Killing_Embryos/factsheetembryo.html.]

Regrettably, we see other persistent distortions in the framing of the developing Senate debate. Some journalists present it as debate between those who wish to ban “the cloning of human beings,” versus those who also wish to ban the use of cloning methods merely to produce “cells” for research.

But the BIO-backed bills do not, in fact, ban the cloning of human beings. What species of being would a cloned human embryo be, if not a human being? There is only one bill, the Weldon-Stupak-Brownback bill, that actually “bans the cloning of human beings.”

Consider a standard medical school textbook on human embryology: The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, by Keith L. Moore. Inside the front cover appears a chart, “Timetable of Human Prenatal Development.” He is, you see there, a human from the very beginning.

Moreover, the debate is not about cloning “cells,” if this can be done without creating an embryo. The Weldon-Stupak-Brownback legislation explicitly permits “research in the use of nuclear transfer or other cloning techniques to produce molecules, DNA, cells other than human embryos, tissues, [or] organs . . .” The Weldon-Stupak-Brownback bill prohibits only the cloning of a human embryo — and that is what the argument is really about.

Perhaps, however, some journalists believe that it would be “taking sides” to use the term “human being” to cover human embryos. If so, there are ways to briefly and accurately describe the content of the competing bills without addressing that point. For example, one could accurately write, “The bill supported by President Bush would ban the creation of human embryos by cloning, while the bills proposed by Senators Harkin and Feinstein would allow this but prohibit implanting any such embryo in a uterus.”

Finally, consider the document released on January 18 by a panel of researchers in the name of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In an attempt to deflect public opposition to all human cloning, the panel recommended a ban on “reproductive cloning,” but not on “a related but different procedure, which the panel denotes as nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells.”

What is this “different procedure” referred to as “nuclear transplantation,” which should be left unrestricted? The panel provides its answer: “Unlike reproductive cloning, the creation of embryonic stem cells by nuclear transplantation does not involve implantation of a blastocyst in a uterus.”

Ah! B so this so-called “nuclear transplantation” is not a different procedure at all, but merely the same cloning procedure undertaken with a different intent. For either “reproductive” purposes or “research” purposes, exactly the same method would be used to clone a human embryo (referred to by the technical term “blastocyst”) — but if the intent is to kill the embryo by removing his or her stem cells, then the panel would prefer to edge away from the term “cloning” in favor of some opaque jargon. By engaging in such transparently politically motivated semantic maneuvers, this group provided a good illustration of the axiom, “Science is not always what scientists do.”

The Anti-Cloning Coalition

Some journalists have adopted the familiar but misleading framework that this is just another battle between medical science and “religious conservatives.” A news story in the January 17 Washington Post even went so far as to suggest that anti-cloning forces were weakened by the September 11 terrorist attacks, since they are “religious conservatives” who, it was implied, share the stigma of their fellow “religious conservatives,” the Taliban.

Certainly it is true that the ban on human cloning has strong backing from NRLC, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, and from other groups that have long defended the right to life of innocent members of the human family. It should come as no surprise that any pro-life group would oppose the deliberate creation of individual human lives for the purpose of destroying them, and oppose legislation that would make it a criminal act to attempt to preserve such a human life.

But backing for the ban on human embryo cloning goes far beyond the ranks of those who might labeled as “religious conservatives.” In November, Senator Brownback hosted a press conference urging immediate Senate action on the ban. Among those participating in that press conference were spokespersons for the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, the United Methodist Church (which has long been an active participant in the pro-abortion lobby), and the International Center for Technology Assessment. (See “Broad-Based Coalition Opposes Human Cloning,” NRL News, December 2001, page 6.]

The coalition against human cloning continues to expand. Jeremy Rifkin, president of the left-wing Foundation on Economic Trends, writes in The Nation (“Fusion Biopolitics,” February 18) of “a statement issued by sixty-seven prominent left progressives on January 23 supporting legislation to outlaw the cloning of human embryos.” Cloning “opens the way to a commercial eugenics civilization” and “a new form of biocolonialism, in which global life science companies become the ultimate arbiters of the evolutionary process itself,” Rifkin wrote.

[Statements from many organizations that support a ban on cloning human embryos have been collected at the website of Americans to Ban Cloning, www.cloninginformation.org.]

In view of these developments, reporters and editors should take care not to report this historic debate in terms of hackneyed formulas.

Millions of Americans will be carefully following the action in the Senate on this fundamental issue involving the sanctity of human life. Senators who vote in favor of the biotech industry’s clone-and-kill bills should expect to be held accountable by their many constituents who are appalled at the imminent prospect of the mass creation and exploitation of human life as a commodity.

Categories: Killing Embryos