May 06, 2002
The New England Journal of Medicine has released for publication ahead of schedule three editorials discussing the legislation and ethics of cloning. This action is in response to several recently published reports on the subject, and it presages legislation that is expected to come to a vote in the next week or two.
At the heart of the debate is the distinction between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. Of the several bills before the House and Senate, some draw a distinction between the two issues, and some assert that there should be no distinction.
Dr. George J. Annas, of Boston University, writes that "the administration is...explicitly making the cloning debate a debate about the moral status of human embryos and thus about abortion politics...if the link between research cloning and reproductive cloning cannot be severed, efforts at compromise are likely to prove futile and the effort to outlaw reproductive cloning will die again in the Senate again, as it did in 1998."
"For the first time, this is about outlawing [cloning] for everyone," Dr. Annas told Reuters Health. "If the issue is really about reproductive cloning, then a much more honest approach would be to pass a bill outlawing reproductive cloning, and then have an open and honest debate about therapeutic cloning." He points out that the Brownback bill (R-KS) would outlaw all aspects of cloning, while the Kennedy bill (D-MA) separates reproductive from therapeutic cloning.
Dr. Irving L. Weissman, of Stanford University in California, writes, "there may be no middle ground in the debate" between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. But he also believes that a distinction should be drawn between blastocysts formed through nuclear transplantation and embryos developed in the process of in vitro fertilization.
"Preventing the use of such blastocysts [those developed through nuclear transplantation] would halt all research on embryonic stem-cell lines...thereby blocking important medical research," he writes. "It is important that the ethical and legislative debates proceed with the understanding that the decision makers are responsible for the lives that would be affected by preventing or delaying research involving embryonic stem cells."
Dr. Weissman equates the current debate over stem cell research with that which occurred over recombinant DNA research more than 20 years ago, when calls for a ban on research also took place. He notes that "it is now unquestioned that hundreds of thousands of people are alive or healthier because of the use of recombinant DNA" that has produced highly effective therapeutic options.
And finally, Dr. Kathinka Evers, of the International Council for Science Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science in Oslo, Norway, gives a European perspective on the stem cell cloning debate.
"We need international rules that protect all people from potential abuse in all countries equally," Dr. Evers asserts. And like Drs. Annas and Weissman, she stresses that "It is important to note that there is a difference between attitudes toward the production of embryos from eggs and sperm and toward the creation of embryos through somatic-cell nuclear transfer."
The journal decided to lift the embargo on these three editorials 10 days early, "because there was so much attention in the media and because it is coming up for a vote in Congress in the next few weeks, we didn't want the information to come out late in the debate," media relations coordinator Karen Pedersen told Reuters Health.
"We didn't release this to influence anything," she added, "but since it is being discussed...and because it was going to be released anyway, we decided to release it now."
N Engl J Med 2002;346:1576-1582,1599-1602.
© 2002 Reuters Ltd