Our Cloning Policy, Hostage to a Stalemate

By Francis Fukuyama

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Last week's announcement by South Korean researchers that they had cloned a human embryo and successfully extracted stem cells from it should be a wake-up call to U.S. lawmakers. It demonstrates both the speed with which science is moving ahead, and the urgent necessity to break the current logjam over cloning legislation that leaves the United States as one of the few developed countries without a legal framework in this area.

There is almost universal agreement that reproductive cloning -- that is, the implanting of a cloned embryo in a woman's uterus with the intention of producing a child -- should be banned for a host of safety and moral reasons. Congress has not been able to pass such a ban, however, because right-to-life forces have demanded that it be linked to a ban on precisely the sort of research cloning performed by the Koreans. On two occasions in the last three years, the House of Representatives passed a ban on both forms of cloning, but the legislation has languished in the Senate, where pro- and anti-cloning forces are more evenly balanced. An international ban on reproductive cloning has been blocked in the United Nations this year by a similar disagreement over whether to link the two types of cloning.

As one who has been involved in the policy issues surrounding embryonic cloning for some time, I find it very frustrating to watch this legislative inaction. We are clearly moving closer to the day when someone will attempt to produce a cloned baby, or to gestate a cloned embryo into a fetus for research purposes -- activities that would be perfectly legal if funded by private money in the United States today (under an executive order issued by President Bush in 2001, federal money can only be used for research on previously existing stem cell lines). There is a way out of this impasse. President Bush's Council on Bioethics, of which I am a member (but for which I do not speak here), suggested it a year and a half ago: a reproductive cloning ban linked to a four-year moratorium on research cloning. I voted with the majority for this proposal, believing that we would need a minimum of four years to set up an appropriate framework for regulating research cloning, and that we would know much better by then whether embryonic stem cell research would live up to the promises made by its current proponents. Yet this compromise, too, has been stymied by both those who oppose and those who favor research cloning.

My personal belief is that human embryos have an intermediate moral status: They are not the moral equivalents of infants, but they also are not merely clumps of cells that can be treated like any other tissue samples. My real worries about research cloning are not about embryo destruction, which is one of the things that concerns anti-cloning forces, but about the kinds of slippery slopes to which such research could lead. Without clear limits on embryo research, the scientific community may in due course demand not just to clone embryos for their stem cells, but to clone fetuses in order to extract organs or tissues. Other types of unsavory possibilities, such as fusing multiple embryos, gestating embryos in non-human hosts, or using non-human eggs to produce human embryos, lie down the road.

The only way to proceed responsibly with stem cell research and research cloning is to create a strict regulatory framework that would set limits on what such research could do. Such a framework has existed in Britain for more than 10 years, in the form of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which strictly regulates both embryo research and in vitro fertilization clinics there. The HFEA tracks the fate of every human embryo produced in Britain and mandates that all that are not implanted be destroyed by the 14th day of development, thereby eliminating the possibility of reproductive cloning or research on embryos or fetuses at later stages of development. The Canadian parliament has this year been considering legislation that would establish a similar authority, but with much more restrictive powers.

To regulate embryo research carefully is, I believe, to give embryos the respect that their intermediate moral status deserves: We can make use of them, as we do of dead human bodies, for medical purposes, but we do not want to permit the market alone to determine how and why they are used. We would permit important stem cell research to go forward, but would foreclose the kinds of repugnant possibilities noted earlier.

Neither the Bush administration nor the proponents or opponents of embryonic cloning in Congress, however, have shown the least interest in a compromise. The anti group continues to back a total ban; the pro group pays lip service to the need for regulation but would be happy to see the research go forward with minimal oversight. Indeed, stem cell advocates in California are preparing a ballot initiative that would allocate $295 million in public money annually over 10 years to support stem cell research, under a weak governance structure that would be entirely captured by the scientists and patient groups most interested in pushing the envelope.

That a cloned embryo was produced first in South Korea rather than in the United States indicates how global science has become. Many argue that globalization makes any national attempt to regulate practices such as cloning irrelevant. I disagree: There is international consensus on the illegitimacy of many types of research, just as there is domestically. But it is premature to think about international regulation before we in the United States have come to an agreement on what our national policy should be. Having done that, we will be in a position to take some leadership within the international community to shape a broader consensus.

There are still other compromise approaches that might provide a way out. The Bioethics Council has recently been considering legislative proposals that would clearly ban practices such as initiating pregnancies for research or creating human-animal hybrids -- that everyone today can agree are morally unacceptable, without in any way endorsing the legitimacy of embryo cloning for research purposes. It is critical to detach these issues from one another. Science is pushing ahead at a relentless pace while legislators dawdle. And in the meantime, we need to devote some serious thought to a new regulatory framework that will carry us through not just the next year, but the next decades.

Author's e-mail:fukuyama@jhu.edu

Francis Fukuyama is a professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University and director of its Biotechnology Governance Project, which is examining ways that regulation can be updated to take account of ethical challenges posed by new biomedical technologies.

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