With superb coordination more indicative of a marketing ploy or a political strategy than a scientific announcement, Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. (ACT) declared to the world in late November that its Massachusetts facility had successfully cloned a human being on Oct. 31, 2001. Most news media dutifully reported the announcement as fact. But is the company's claim true?
You would assume so, on the basis of most press reports. "First Human Embryo Is Cloned," reported David Derbyshire, science correspondent for the U.K.'s Electronic Telegraph. "U.S. Scientists Cloned Human Embryos," penned Rick Weiss of the Nov. 25 Washington Post. NewScientist.com headlined the story, "First Cloned Human Embryos Created." "The First Human Cloned Embryo" is the title of an article published in the January issue of Scientific American, written, by the way, by the principal corporate officers of ACT.
Joannie Fischer of U.S. News & World Report wrote the cover story for its Dec. 3 issue: "Scientists have finally cloned a human embryo," says the subtitle. "The breakthrough promises cures for terrible diseases." Ms. Fischer has been reporting on the issue for the past 18 months and is no stranger to the details of the cloning process or to ACT's research findings. She appeared in a split-screen interview with Dr. Michael West, CEO of ACT, on NBC's Meet the Press program Sunday Nov. 25, speaking glowingly of Dr. West's and ACT's "breakthrough."
Much of the press coverage has focused upon this angle and has featured interviews with people who would potentially benefit from new cures for disease.
But did ACT achieve this technological marvel? And does it promise cures for terrible diseases? Some scientists were much less enthusiastic about the ACT announcement than was the press in large measure. Dr. Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute, leading scientist in the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep, says that ACT's results should at best be described as "preliminary."
He explained that "a human embryo is expected to double its number of cells every 24 hours, but even ACT's most developed embryo had not done this. The furthest it got to was to have six cells, at a time it should have had 60." Rather than prove that it was a viable human embryo, this fact proves that "it had already died" (op. cit., NewScientist.com).
Other scientists agreed with Wilmut's perspective.
"'From what I saw.these guys didn't get very far,' Kevin Wilson, spokesman for the American Society for Cell Biology, said in a telephone interview. Leading stem cell researcher John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore agreed. 'The data is not very convincing,' Gearhart said" ("Human Embryo Cloning Draws Fire," MSNBC, Nov. 26, 2001).
Dr. Glenn Agee, professor of ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that ACT has a history of selectively releasing details of its work through media outlets-a tacky approach in the field of science.
Dr. West attempted to minimize the criticism, telling NBC's Katie Couric in a Nov. 26 interview on The Today Show that it's easy for others to say ACT scientists should have taken their procedure a step further. But the above comments show that there's more to the criticism than simple Monday-morning quarterbacking.
ACT published its findings on Nov. 25 in an on-line scientific journal, e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine, coincidental with a number of press releases and interviews. Publishing the results of a scientific study in an official journal is a serious step in the scientific community. Doing so prematurely would jeopardize the credibility of ACT's work. Why would the company be willing to go forward with the claim to have cloned human life if there were a serious question about its work?
Superlatives are inadequate to describe the implications of actually cloning human life. To be able to claim, "We did it first," would guarantee not only the highest of notoriety, but also billions of dollars in the field of biotech/medical research.
Grow embryos to kill them
The goal ACT is pursuing is that of growing human embryos long enough that they would produce stem cells from which ACT would hope to grow any cell doctors might need to treat patients-pancreatic cells for diabetics, nerve and muscle cells for people suffering from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord or brain injuries. Stem cells are the building blocks of human growth. They're the cells that scientists "harvest" from embryos discarded by in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics.
We say ACT hopes to grow these cells, because there is no proof that this can actually be done, and it certainly hasn't been accomplished yet. In a television interview, Dr. West's own assessment was, "this could be years off" (op. cit., The Today Show).
ACT's announcement ignited a maelstrom of controversy from another perspective. In order to harvest stem cells, it's necessary to kill the embryo that grows them. Those who recognize that life begins at conception understand this is murder. Dr. West sidesteps the criticism, declaring that he is "pro-life" and labeling his laboratory's creations "cellular life" as opposed to "embryonic life."
In ACT's own words, it has made "a new type of biological entity never before seen in nature" (op. cit., Scientific American). What the company is referring to is producing embryos-"cellular life" as it has coined them-from egg cells without fertilizing them. The biological term is parthenogenesis, which is from the Greek language and means, "virgin birth." Parthenogenesis actually does occur in nature-in many insects, for example-but there's a reason why ACT seeks to define its work as "new."
By emphasizing that they are doing "therapeutic cloning," not "reproductive cloning," the biotech corporation hopes to separate itself from the likes of IVF Dr. Panos Zavos (who says he will have cloned babies for infertile couples within months) and the Raëlians (a religious group that is working on cloning to make people immortal-and has hundreds of women volunteers who will donate eggs).
But, therapeutic cloning doesn't mean that human embryos will not be killed. The distinction means only that the clones ACT produces will never be allowed to be born. ACT's creations have to be placed in women who will host their development in order to produce the desired stem cells. When they reach that stage of development, they will be killed and the cells harvested.
ACT assembled a team of ethicists, which decided that ACT's cloning method was "morally acceptable." But they have yet to decide at what point it would be "morally acceptable" to terminate the "cellular life" growing in its host's womb. A handful of people from the scientific community have taken upon themselves a decision not given to mankind to make.
An attempt to force acceptance
ACT knows its work won't be accepted easily. The White House immediately announced that President Bush was opposed to cloning in any form. The U.S. president issued an executive order last August that barred the use of federal funds for research involving stem cells derived from cloning, but ACT is a private company with private funding-not subject to the president's ruling.
More to the point is a bill before the U.S. Senate, which would institute a broad ban on all types of cloning-including what ACT calls "therapeutic cloning." The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in July and will be debated by the Senate early next year. It's no trifling law, for it would impose prison terms of up to 10 years and fines of $1 million for cloning in any form-regardless of whether it is funded by federal or private money. Leading senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties told NBC news that they expect the bill to pass (op. cit., Meet the Press).
When asked by Katie Couric how far he was willing to go in the face of such legislation, Dr. West did not give a direct reply. He said that he hoped people would take a compassionate view of the subject, meaning that he hoped they would focus upon the potential medical benefits rather than on the profoundly weighty ethical questions involved.
In a CNN interview, Dr. West hinted that the timing of the announcement (and presumably, the strategic manner in which it was packaged) was to pressure the Senate to allow therapeutic cloning for medical research purposes (op. cit., The Washington Post). In essence, ACT announced as loudly as possible, "It's already been done."
Across the pond, the British Parliament is currently debating a ban similar to that before the U.S. Senate.
However, the British government favors cloning for the purpose of medical research. The bill to ban cloning is being lobbied by groups that oppose abortion and clearly has some support in Parliament. The law as proposed would be incomplete, however, because it only addresses placing "in a woman human embryos that have been created by a method other than by fertilisation [British spelling]" (ibid, NewScientist.com). That is, it doesn't forbid the process of creating what ACT describes as "cellular life." Some fear that if this technical point isn't clarified, Britain is likely to become a haven for scientists pursuing "therapeutic cloning."
Sin to take human life
Is it plausible that anyone would accept the argument that killing what ACT calls "cellular life," which could be born as a human being, isn't human life? Actually, millions of people have already accepted the argument, haven't they? For those who would abort the life of an unborn child or support that action, there is no moral issue in therapeutic cloning. They've already crossed the moral divide.
Why has much of the press been willing to inflate what ACT has done? Certainly, good investigative reporting should have uncovered the fact that their claims to have cloned human life were overstated. Could it be that the largely liberal press sees this as an opportunity to leverage the argument that ending the life of a human embryo is no sin? More and more, people who sincerely believe God are being marginalized as "the religious right" or as extremists.
God inspired the prophet Isaiah to pen this warning: "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil... Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!" (Isaiah 5:20-21). To decide what is "morally right," we must look to God and His Word-not to human reasoning.
It was easy for the Western world to recognize the recent terrorist attacks as "evil." It's not so easy for the same people to see that killing human embryos is "evil." To his credit, President Bush immediately said that it was "morally wrong." However, his voice is likely to be drowned out in the long term by the Western world's decades-long drift into moral bankruptcy. WNP