The decision of the US House of Representatives to ban both therapeutic and reproductive cloning and to criminalise researchers who pursue it has elicited a wave of moral consternation – even queasiness – here in Britain.
Underlying these misgivings is the fear that Parliament's approval earlier this year of therapeutic cloning has made the UK something of a moral pariah among nations. Certainly, there are questions we need to answer. Is therapeutic cloning really dangerous science – unnecessary, unprincipled and immoral? Does it ruthlessly sacrifice future generations for the sake of extending the lives and comfort of spoiled people? Should the UK government heed the voice of critics in the media, politics and various lobby groups and follow the American example?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding no. For more than four years, Ian Wilmut, the leader of the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, has warned of the dangers of "copying people". There are similar dangers in trying to "copy" other people's legislation, no matter how well-conceived. And the hastily passed and insufficiently discussed American bill was very poorly conceived indeed.
Winston Churchill described the British and Americans as two peoples separated by a common language. But we are also separated by very distinct political and social contexts and by differing moral thresholds about contentious issues. Animal welfare, for example, is a great preoccupation here – it isn't there.
We can, of course, learn from each other, but the nature of our social and moral debates will always be different, even though they proceed from the same questions. It is wise, therefore, to be sceptical about the kind of argument which claims that Britain must be wrong because America, Germany or France does things differently.
Most people in the US and the UK are in favour of research using embryonic stem cells. Very few people are fundamentalist to the degree that they would not, in any circumstances, wish to embrace treatments developed from embryos that are left over after fertility treatment and would otherwise be discarded.
Embryonic stem cells, derived from early embryos no larger than a grain of sand, are marvellously useful entities. They can give rise to all cell types in the body. Coached along the right developmental pathways, they could provide a virtually limitless supply of tissue for transplantation.
For some people with strong religious convictions, any embryo research will be wrong, regardless of the benefit. But several prominent US politicians who fiercely oppose abortion nonetheless support embryonic stem cell research. In the words of one of them, Senator Orrin Hatch, an embryo in a freezer has a different moral status from that of a foetus in a womb. However, even some advocates of embryonic stem cell research – particularly in the United States – find the additional steps involved in therapeutic cloning go beyond acceptable moral and political limits.
As for the so-called "final frontier", reproductive cloning, the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has said it would never license such a step. But to ensure that the procedure is banned by law and not just by licence, the Government has promised to introduce primary legislation. This should quell fears that any acceptance of therapeutic cloning would inevitably lead to a slide to reproductive cloning.
In the case of therapeutic and reproductive cloning, I don't think the risk of setting up a slippery slope is a significant one. The intent behind the former is different from that behind the latter – to save lives, rather than to produce a child. And I don't believe that therapeutic cloning to heal the sick would create a climate in which people would be encouraged to use cloning as a means of reproduction.
Therapeutic cloning is also a learning tool for research. It is a way for scientists to learn the lessons of Dolly – how a somatic cell (one that knows how to be only one thing) can be reprogrammed to forget its narrow destiny and to be capable of much more. It will even, in a sense, put itself out of business as it unlocks the secrets of cell reprogramming and allows us to use one type of body cell that is healthy to replace another type that is sick. The hope is that this research will allow scientists, say, to turn your cheek cell into a brain cell to produce dopamine to alleviate or even cure Parkinson's disease; or a heart cell to repair damage from a heart attack; or a liver cell, and so on.
With this new knowledge, it may one day be possible to bypass the embryo stage entirely by converting one cell directly into another. But we need the research to take us there. Of late, there has been much irresponsible and inflammatory language around the subject.
In the Spectator, I read of "hundreds of thousands of embryos having been created for research in Britain" and a disturbing picture is painted of a future in which embryos are created only to be commodified. It is true that in the early stages of therapeutic cloning research, eggs will be needed and embryos created. But scientists – far from being the deranged Frankensteins of febrile imagination – have been very circumspect in the creation of embryos for research purposes: in the UK, fewer than 100 were created for research between 1 August 1991 and 31 March 1999.
Given the compelling scientific rationale for therapeutic cloning, why did this argument not carry the day in the US? Because politicians were simply unprepared to deal with the complexities of the science, and because they did not believe the US public was able to cross the moral threshold from using surplus embryos for research to creating them for research. What you have allowed here since 1990, we have not even discussed. So the American legislation was passed in haste and will be repented at leisure – or, more likely, greatly modified when the bill reaches the Senate.
The UK has the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to oversee all aspects of embryo research and the use of donated gametes for infertility treatment. What does the US have? A patchwork of state law but no federal regulation. More than 400 clinics are operating with a minimum of oversight.
This is the context for the panic in Congress at the prospect of therapeutic cloning being done in the private sector. One company, Advanced Cell Technology, had announced plans to pursue such research. The same company told us several years ago it had used cloning techniques to implant human genetic material in cow's eggs. The House of Representatives has, it is true, rushed to a premature and ill-informed judgment, but it was sorely provoked. Britain, by contrast, has pursued a more reflective route.
Therapeutic cloning is not wrong. On the contrary, it will save lives. Neither is it the first stop on the road to some frightening destination. Do not give in to the prophets of false fear. Be proud that Britain is at the cutting edge of progress. What you are doing will help others – now and in the future.
Arlene Judith Klotzko, a bioethicist and lawyer, is writer in residence at the Science Museum and editor of 'The Cloning Sourcebook' (OUP).Reuse content