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Drawing (cell) lines

Legislators battle over bills while Raëlians boast success

By Leigh E. Rich

Forget Iraq. That’s the sandstorm of George Bush, Sr.

Long before the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the resurgence of Saddam Hussein in the crosshairs of U.S. foreign policy, George W. Bush was planting his feet—and his pro-life stance—firmly into a legacy dominated by placating biotechnology while simultaneously limiting the research uses of human embryos.

Though forgotten in the rubble of the World Trade Center aftermath, the debate over stem cells—cloned ones, in particular—marks the current session of the 108th Congress, with Republicans and Democrats alike abuzz with equivocation.

Ironically for No. 43, as he engages in a desert war with Iraq as his father did before him, the stamping out of cloning also might define the younger Bush’s presidency.

But despite a Republican House and Senate, advocates—both those for a total ban on reproductive and therapeutic cloning and those only for banning reproductive cloning—are uncertain whether any of the current anti-cloning bills will garner the votes needed to pass both houses and say that such legislation remains at a stand still.

Like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, all this running in place could be a knee-jerk reaction to the alleged birth of “Eve,” a cloned baby said to have been born on Dec. 26 to a Florida woman under the aegis of Clonaid, a Bahamas-based company founded in 1997 by Raëlians leader and former race-car driver Claude Vorilhon, aka Raël. The Raëlians sect currently claims that four more cloned children have been born since Eve, the most recent on Feb. 4.

Based in Quebec, Canada, the Raëlians have been unwilling or unable to provide proof of any of these births to the doubting Thomases of the world. And while skepticism is the hallmark of good science and many are decrying the immorality of cloning humans, most researchers and legislators believe it’s only a matter of time before someone successfully clones a human being.

Whether the time has come to enact federal legislation dictating the dos and don’ts of cloning is another matter. Though Rep. Dave Weldon’s (R-Fla.) anti-cloning bill H.R. 534, introduced Feb. 5, did pass in the House on Feb. 27, it must still survive a vote in the Senate, where Weldon’s similar anti-cloning H.R. 2505 died in 2001.

But in light of even the dubious claims of success by the fringe group, this time around may prove the charm, and the cloning issue could be ripe for more than mere legislative discussion.

New Congress follows through on Bush’s plea for anti-cloning legislation

In his Jan. 28 State of the Union, President Bush called for a “law against all human cloning.” This request comes a year and a half after Bush addressed the American public regarding his decision to limit the use of federal research monies in stem cell research.

Three weeks prior to that Aug. 8, 2001 decision—arguably Bush’s first presidential act—Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) introduced H.R. 2505 in the 107th Congress. The Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2001 would have amended Title 28 of the United States Code, banning all forms of human cloning with a penalty of $1 million and up to 10 years in jail.

H.R. 2505, which passed in the House by a 265–162 vote but died in the Senate, would have prohibited both reproductive and therapeutic cloning as well as the “importation” of “an embryo produced by human cloning or any product derived from such embryo.”

This January, Rep. Weldon, who is also a medical doctor, reintroduced H.R. 2505 in the form of H.R. 234, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003—an identical bill to its 2001 cousin except for the absence of the “product” piece of the troublesome importation clause that would have seemingly prohibited any U.S. citizen from traveling overseas to undergo medical therapy that uses human cloning techniques.

Then on Feb. 5, Weldon introduced H.R. 534, a bill reinstating that full importation prohibition. This bill passed in the House on Feb. 27 by a vote of 241–155.

Competing House bill H.R. 801, introduced by Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) on Feb. 13, however, proposes to prohibit human reproductive cloning but allow the use of “somatic cell nuclear transfer technology” in biomedical, microbiological or agricultural research. This bill, which would amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, was referred to the Subcommittee on Health on Feb. 26.

Similar anti-cloning debate is afoot in the Senate as well. S. 245, a bill identical to H.R. 234 in that it omits the latter half of the importation clause, was introduced in the Senate on Jan. 29 by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and 26 of his colleagues, including Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) and Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.). It is still in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

It would seem, in light of a statement released on June 4, 2002, that Senate Majority Leader and heart transplant surgeon Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would back S. 245 if it were to come to a vote on the Senate floor. Citing Bush’s 2001 stem cell policy “that allows federal funding of embryonic stem cell research for nearly 80 stem cell lines,” Frist stated, “the promise and hope of new cures is being investigated. And the promise of this research does not—I repeat, does not—depend on human cloning. … Given the early state of this uncharted new science, the large number of federal cell lines and the unlimited number available for private research, I believe there is presently a sufficient number and range of cells.”

Though prohibiting therapeutic cloning does not necessarily prevent American scientists from engaging in projects related to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and spinal cord diseases, among others, some researchers believe a total cloning ban will give other countries a leg up, so to speak, in the biomedical industry. This January, England’s House of Lords overwhelmingly decided to allow human stem cell cloning.

And Bush’s 80 federally sanctioned stem cell lines do not seem to exist. According to the National Institutes of Health’s human embryonic stem cell registry, updated last November, only nine usable stem cell lines are currently available.

This limitation and the unsettled state of disease research using such techniques have prompted Dr. Steven L. Teitelbaum, head of a Rockville, Md. life sciences organization in favor of therapeutic cloning, to caution policy makers to not “throw the baby out with the bath water,” according to an article published last December in The Daily Record. The article reports that The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology has more than 60,000 members.

Complicating matters even more, support and opposition of these anti-cloning bills do not fall along clear RNC and GNC or pro-life and pro-choice lines. On Feb. 5, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced S. 303, the Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2003, which would prohibit reproductive cloning but allow “nuclear transplantation” for disease research purposes.

According to the bill, nuclear transplantation is defined as “transferring the nucleus of a human somatic cell into an oocyte from which the nucleus or all chromosomes have been or will be removed or rendered inert.” In other words, using cloning techniques to replace the nucleus of a human egg cell, which contains only half of the 46 human chromosomes found in an adult cell.

Though Hatch is a staunch pro-lifer, he stated in his announcement that he believes “after much study, reflection, and prayer, that human life requires and begins in a mother’s womb.” Hatch, backed by the support of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, an advocate for Alzheimer’s research, accepts human therapeutic cloning because nuclear transplantation “does not involve a fertilized egg and does not involve implantation into a womb.”

Hatch’s reasoning, however, poises him at the edge of a slippery slope. Human reproductive cloning also does not involve a fertilized egg and, if the Raëlians or even some reputable scientists get their wish, artificial wombs could be around the corner. In fact, Raëlians leader Vorilhon and Brigitte Boisselier, a Raëlian bishop and president of Clonaid, recently announced the launch of Surrogaid, a new project to create the first artificial womb deemed the “Babytron.”

Perhaps ahead of the game, Hatch’s S. 303 makes the provision for prohibiting the “product of nuclear transplantation into a uterus or the functional equivalent of a uterus.”

Testimony in support of Hatch’s bill and decidedly anti-Brownback was heard before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on March 19. Entitled “Drawing the Line Between Ethical Regenerative Medicine Research and Immoral Human Reproductive Cloning,” advocates for therapeutic cloning such as Dr. Harold Varmus of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Dr. Thomas Murray of The Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., spoke before the committee chaired by Hatch himself.

Varmus, who shared in the 1989 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of cancer-causing genes called oncogenes, called the Brownback-Weldon initiatives that would ban both human reproductive and therapeutic cloning “draconian legislation.”

“Criminalizing the science,” he said during the hearing, “is unnecessary, unjustified and unprecedented. … There is no ‘slippery slope’ here. The boundary between the two activities is broad and unambiguous.”

Similarly, Murray dubbed the “ethical arguments in favor of not criminalizing nuclear transfer in human stems cells” as “straightforward,” deeming American scientists “today’s explorers … more likely to wear white coats and inhabit laboratories than to paddle canoes or hike over mountain passes.”

Rep. Weldon, however, speaking in February before the House concerning his H.R. 534, virtually suggested that many scientists in favor of therapeutic cloning deliberately use confusing and duplicitous language. “They are trying to call embryo cloning ‘somatic cell nuclear transfer,’” he said, “and the reason they are trying to do that—scientifically that is what it is—but … they are trying to put a pretty face on it.”

Though Weldon claims the “majority of Americans … something like 65, 70, 80 percent” are against all forms of human cloning, his conservative, pro-life bias underscores his arguments.

“Historically in our nation,” he said before the House, “we have always stood up for protecting life. The recent historical departure from that, Roe v. Wade … I do not particularly agree with.”

The problem with the problem with copies

For the rest of us, understanding the distinction between reproductive and therapeutic cloning and between the use of cloned stem cells and regular stem cells is, as Bush said in his August 2001 address, “a complex and difficult issue, an issue that is one of the most profound of our time.”

Whether used for reproductive or therapeutic purposes, cloning involves the insertion of a complete set of the 46 human chromosomes—taken from a somatic or body cell of an adult—into a human egg cell—an oocyte—whose nucleus has been removed. Both reproductive and therapeutic cloning, therefore, require a human egg and are thus considered embryonic stem cells. A stem cell is one that can differentiate into a variety of other types of cells.

For reproductive cloning, such manipulated eggs are then implanted into a woman’s uterus using common in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques and allowed to develop into a fetus.

In therapeutic cloning, the eggs are instead used for research and experimental therapy for common diseases. Such therapeutic techniques are tested in animal models first, and it often takes an average of 14 years for biomedical therapies of any kind to advance from development to FDA approval for use in humans.

Current research, particularly regarding Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, has involved stem cells, though not cloned stem cells. Not all stem cells come from embryonic sources, moreover. For example, stem cells are produced by the bone marrow and give rise to the various types of the body’s blood cells.

The jury, even within the scientific community, is still out concerning whether embryonic stem cells promise the most therapeutic advances and whether cloned embryonic stem cells offer even more.

The euthanasia of famed cloned sheep Dolly on Valentine’s Day also has upped the ante. According to Scotland’s Roslin Institute where Dolly was created, the six-year-old ewe developed a progressive lung disease she may have contracted from one of the institute’s other sheep. A recent Associated Press article, however, reported that Dolly’s cells were showing abnormal signs of aging in 1999, and by January 2002, Dolly had developed arthritis at the age of five and a half. The lifespan of a Finn Dorset sheep is typically 12 years.

Dolly’s creator, Ian Wilmut, said in the AP article that the ewe’s lung disease was unlikely associated with being a clone. While the lung illness is not uncommon among the species, animal cloning experts were quoted as saying in a Dec. 28, 2002 New York Times article—six weeks before Dolly was put to death—that “some cloned animals have died in infancy or soon afterward with serious medical problems like defects in their lungs or immune systems.”

Grounding the Raëlians in reality

The death of Dolly, the emotional and ethical push and pull of cloning, and the uncertainty about the state of the science only amplify the debate on Capitol Hill and around the dinner table. Add to that the claims of the birth of five cloned humans by the Raëlians, and it seems the time is long past due for the legislature to speak up.

Regardless of the congressional stalemate, much ado has been made in the media. Along with press conferences held in Hollywood, Fla., to announce the alleged birth of Eve and coverage of the Raëlians movement in reputable newspapers such as The New York Times, Clonaid officials—who also happen to be Raëlian “bishops”—have appeared on national television.

Thomas Kaenzig, vice president of Clonaid, joined Barbara Walters and her female counterparts on The View on Jan. 2. During the affable breakfast-time chit-chat, Walters deemed the cloning claim one of the greatest scientific discoveries. Such plaudits may give the Raëlians more credit than they deserve, as animal cloning techniques have been around at least since 1964—when John Gurdon of Oxford University cloned frogs using intestinal cells from adult frogs. The Raëlians perhaps only deserve credit for their hubris.

Even pushing ethical questions aside, the Raëlians’ numbers just don’t add up. When asked by Star Jones how many cloning attempts the Raëlians have made, Kaenzig claimed 10 cloned embryos were implanted into surrogates, with five successful pregnancies—and now allegedly five live births—and five “miscarriages.”

Kaenzig would have the scientific world believe the Raëlians have a 50 percent success rate after only 10 attempts. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Summary and Fertility Clinic Reports from 1995, the national IVF live birth per egg retrieval rate is only 22.3 percent. And even this moderate rate comes after nearly two decades of clinics performing such assisted reproductive therapies since Louise Brown, the first “test tube” baby, was born on July 25, 1978.

If Clonaid and the Raëlians have perfected this science—when animal researchers have repeatedly failed to successfully clone even non-human primates—they at least have a responsibility to share their success with the greater scientific community. Good science is open, honest and publishable.

Good science, moreover, is responsible science. Whether the Raëlians have succeeded in their human cloning attempts, responsible research does not experiment on humans, especially without a human subjects review from an institutional review board, something the Raëlians don’t seem to have.

But the media have also glossed over the fact that the ultimate goal of the Raëlians is eternal life via the “transplantation” of one’s personality and memories into a 17-year-old clone whose growth process has been accelerated. (Raël, a balding, former race-car driver, believes 17 is the “optimal” age for humans.)

If the Raëlians honestly believe they can transfer personality and hasten human development, they are most likely willing to experiment on humans (how could you first experiment with transplanting the personality of a dog?).

The egg, so to speak, must eventually crack. Not many reputable scientists hold press conferences from a Holiday Inn in Hollywood, Fla., and—all the facts taken together—the Raëlians seem to be on a money hunt. Even Dr. Thomas Murray of The Hastings Center implied the Raëlians are “entrepreneurs who are growing famous and wealthy with their ludicrous boasts” in his March 19 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Similar to scams perpetrated on the public like the “creative accounting” of Enron, the truth about the Raëlians will eventually emerge. Good science doesn’t require secrecy—only charlatans do.

And the Raëlians are perhaps just dazzling us with a slight of hand so that we forget their egoism in proceeding where researchers and legislators have exhibited caution.

Whether one believes that a deity or aliens created humans, both are purely deus ex machina explanations. What is missing from either, if taken to extreme, is human responsibility.

Perhaps it doesn’t quite matter how we got here but, rather, how we act while we exist.

Who is the leader?

With the Raëlians and all their talk of aliens and immortality, it’s hard not to be reminded of an episode of The Simpsons where Homer and his family are conned into joining a cult called the Movmentarians that offers paradisiacal living on an alien planet. As the Simpsons and their similarly dimwitted neighbors slave in the fields so “The Leader” can build a spaceship, Homer tears down a barn supposedly housing the craft in an attempt to expose the scam.

In a booming voice out of nowhere, The Leader reprimands his flock for their skepticism and, as punishment, powers the rocket ship without them. And as the glitzy “alien craft” flies away and subsequently begins to fall apart due to the weight of all the money The Leader has hoarded, the charade is uncovered and the people of Springfield return to their normal lives, though no one knows if any wiser.

The issue of cloning, however, even without the extreme actions of a questionable group, remains a serious matter. Human fertility experts such as Panos Zavos, professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky, and Italy’s Severino Antinori, director of the International Associated Research Institute for Human Reproduction Infertility in Rome, are both vocal advocates for human reproductive cloning, though not necessarily therapeutic cloning.

And while some U.S. legislators have drawn their lines, many have yet to decide.

President Bush, of course, supports a total ban. And unlike the disappearance of Osama bin Laden from his presidential docket, banning the use of human embryonic stem cells is not likely to disappear from Bush’s radar any time soon. 

Rich, L. E. (2003, February 23). Drawing (cell) lines: Legislators battle over bills while Raëlians boast success. Boston’s Weekly Dig, cover story.

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