Cloning Red Herrings: Why Concerns about Human-Animal Experiments Are Overblown

Article excerpt

IN FEBRUARY OR MARCH 2002, the U.S. Senate will consider several competing bills that address human cloning, stem cell research, and other issues dealing with reproductive biotechnology. Kansas Republican Sam Brownback has offered some of the most restrictive legislation. He favors a proposal to outlaw the production of cloned human embryos for any purpose. He would ban all attempts to engineer human genes in ways that could be passed on from one generation to the next, partly because he does not want scientists to transfer animal DNA into the human genetic code. He also would forbid researchers from creating human-animal hybrids or chimeras -- a term used in mythology to describe a monster made of parts from several animals, but in biological terms, an organism with at least two genetically distinct types of cells. In making these proposals, Brownback has joined a growing number of people on both ends of the political spectrum who voice concerns that bioengineers eventually will produce creatures that blur the line between humans and other species.

In a recent article, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer argues that many of his fellow conservatives do not recognize the awful power of reproductive technology and how badly it needs to be reined in by the government. He writes: "In 1998 it was reported that a human nucleus had been implanted in a cow egg cell, producing ... a possible hybrid human-cow creature. It was destroyed in its early embryonic stage, but not before giving us a glimpse of horrors that lie within the reach of the new reproductive biotechnology." Krauthammer suggests that Congress should fund embryonic stem cell research but outlaw the production of cloned human embryos for any purpose. Through such measures, he believes, federal authorities will gain a large degree of control over how such research is conducted, as scientists scramble for government grants.

Francis Fukuyama, a professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, takes Krauthammer's argument a step further. In a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, he too mentions the same "hybridization" experiment to justify federal support of embryonic stem cell research. He writes:

A couple of years ago, a small biotech company named Advanced Cell Technologies [sic] reported that it had successfully implanted human DNA into a cow's egg, and that that egg had successfully undergone a number of cell divisions into a viable blastocyst (1) before it was destroyed. It might come as a surprise to many that biotechnology is in a position to produce creatures that are part human and part animal, and that the law is indifferent as to whether it does so.

Fukuyama believes that Congress should require all scientists who work with embryonic stem cells to obey a set of guidelines recently proposed by the National Institutes of Health, even if those researchers do not receive any government grants. These guidelines, published in the Federal Register on August 25, 2000, would allow federally funded scientists to conduct research on stem cells obtained from embryos that had been produced by in vitro fertilization clinics and were slated for destruction. New criteria issued by the Bush administration would require government-backed laboratories to work with 72 existing stem cell lines, but would not change how those cells could be used. Since both sets of rules would bar federally funded scientists from producing cloned human embryos for any reason, they automatically would prevent biologists from doing the kind of research that Advanced Cell Technology conducted. The guidelines also would ban the creation of human-animal chimeras, but they would do nothing to restr ict the insertion of human DNA into other species. Nor do they prohibit the transfer of human fetal stem cells into the fetuses of other animals, as Fukuyama mistakenly claims in the Wall Street Journal. …