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Beware legislators who approve cloning while pretending to ban it

By Connie Marshner
web posted May 6, 2002

Senator Potemkin? Congressman Potemkin?

On April 30, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) joined liberal Republican Senator Arlen Specter and ultra-liberal Democrat Senators Dianne Feinstein and Teddy Kennedy in co-sponsoring a Potemkin-Village style ban on cloning. You've heard of politics making strange bedfellows. This is a case of politics making strange petri-dish-fellows.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, second from left, accompanied by fellow senators, meets reporters on Capitol Hill on April 30 to discuss their legislation that will prohibit human reproductive cloning yet allow cloning research. From left are, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Hatch, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, second from left, accompanied by fellow senators, meets reporters on Capitol Hill on April 30 to discuss their legislation that will prohibit human reproductive cloning yet allow cloning research. From left are, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Hatch, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif

Orrin Hatch usually likes his constituents to believe he lines up with colleagues like Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas on issues involving human life. Brownback is the sponsor of legislation that would really outlaw human cloning. That happens to be the position favored by 77% of the public, at least according to a poll released on April 9 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

That's pretty straightforward. So much so that BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and its friends are finding it necessary to confuse the issue. Which leads to a brief course in Semantics 101. Hatch says he doesn't like "reproductive" cloning, but wants to allow "therapeutic" cloning. What is the difference between the two processes?

Nothing. It's sort of like a distinction between "pleasure" eating and "nourishment" eating: as if the intention of the act made all the difference. The intention of the act is very important in moral theory, but so is the nature of the act. And the nature of the act of so-called "therapeutic cloning" is the same in nature as the act of so-called "reproductive cloning".

Because most people still don't like the word "cloning" no matter what adjective comes before it, there's "nuclear transplantation" as a euphemism. Or "therapeutic cellular transfer". Both are gobbledygook ways of saying "switch the nucleus" - which is what cloning is.

And after the nucleus is switched in the egg cell, it gets a form of electric shock therapy and starts growing. And a growing, reproducing human egg cell with a complete nucleus is called --? Accurately, an embryo. Only that sounds like a human being, like one of us nine months before birth. So how about "activated egg" or "ovasome" as possible gobbledygook terms to confuse the issue?

Why does the public need to be confused? So the public will look with more favor on the farming of human embryos in petri dishes. Why should the public look with favor on that? So the public will change its mind and decide to support scientific experiments on cloned human beings.

Why is that important? Because embryonic stem cells are said to be necessary for developments in regenerative medicine, and lots of people stand to make lots of money doing lots of things once they can play around with embryonic stem cells. Regenerative medicine is the golden boy of the investment world right now - which means repairing Christopher Reeve's spinal cord, to cite its most celebrated advocate.

The irony is that the argument doesn't hang together. It is not just human embryos that produce the kind of cells that researchers need. Olfactory ensheathing glial cells (or, nose tissue) can promote neuronal cell repair and function in rats with spinal cord injury. Ordinary human skin cells can transform into immune cells. And where a cubic centimeter of bone marrow contains 10,000 adult stem cells, a cubic centimeter of fat - yes, the kind that people pay to have liposuctioned off - contains a million stem cells.

The point is: we do not need to open the floodgates of human cloning in order to advance regenerative medicine. Adult stem cells are plentiful, available, and perfectly moral to use. There is no need for "therapeutic cloning" at all. But Orrin Hatch wants to allow it - at the same time claiming credit with his constituents for wanting to ban human cloning.

Norman Mailer, a straightforward leftist, opposes cloning too. Sincerely. All the way. No shifting rhetoric. Any experiments, Mailer realizes, could open the door to "commercial eugenics". But mostly, Mailer wonders whether government can control the scientists.

Probably not, if the Hatch-Specter-Feinstein-Kennedy bill becomes law. But if the Senate passes the Brownback bill, then limits can be placed on human experimentation. The Brownback bill passed the House last July 31 by a vote of 265-162. Interestingly, back in July the House definitively rejected (by a 249-178 margin) a measure just like the current Hatch/Kennedy bill.

It was called the Greenwood Substitute, in honor of Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Jim Greenwood, and it was the House's attempt to pass a Potemkin Village-style Cloning Ban.If you're old enough to remember Communism, you remember the Potemkin Village phenomenon: facades of houses, shops, and the like, built to create the appearance of a thriving village. Behind the facades - nothing.

Emptiness. The opposite of the façade.

So it was with the Greenwood Substitute; so it is with the Hatch/Kennedy bill: an attempt to get credit for prohibiting human cloning by in fact permitting human cloning. Hatch's bill would permit the cloning so long as there was no chance of the survival of the tiny human beings - clone away, Hatch would say, but clone and kill. Clone all you want, but just don't implant the clonees into a woman's body.

It would be far clearer, as well as far more moral, to just draw the line in the sand and say "no cloning". That's what the House did last July. Can the Senate do it this spring? It might not be wise to count the hatches before they chicken.

Connie Marshner is director of the Center for Governance at the Free Congress Foundation.

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