By Tom Still
It would be misleading to suggest that scientists at UW-Madison or anywhere else in Wisconsin are cloning human embryos. They aren’t. In fact, no scientist in the state has even announced plans to do so.
It would also be disingenuous to suggest the process for cloning a human embryo for reproductive purposes is any different – at the outset — from the process used in “therapeutic cloning.” The first step in both procedures involves removing an egg’s nucleus (the part containing its DNA) from an unfertilized egg.
What happens next is where the difference lies, insist those who want therapeutic cloning to remain an option for scientists in search of life-saving treatments, more accurate models for testing drugs, or basic scientific knowledge. Only by being implanted in a woman’s womb can a cloned embryo possibly become a baby. And because cloned embryos used for research aren’t implanted, proponents say, removing their stem cells is not tantamount to abortion.
Opponents disagree. They say destroying a cloned embryo to obtain its cells for research is morally wrong. It may be just a microscopic blob of undifferentiated stem cells, opponents argue, but it’s still human life.
Which side is right? Last week, the Republican-led state Assembly agreed with those who want to ban all forms of human cloning, even for research. The vote fell largely along party line votes, although some Republicans voted to separate the issue into reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning.
The vote in the state Senate – if it happens at all – may be much closer. Republican leaders in the upper house aren’t eager to vote on a comprehensive cloning ban, although they would readily accept a bill that prohibited reproductive cloning only. For that matter, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle would almost certainly sign a ban on reproductive cloning.
If only it was that easy. Just before the cloning debate began, a prominent senator discussed introducing a separate bill to ban most research involving human embryonic stem cells. That set off alarm bells on Bascom Hill, where University of Wisconsin officials are convinced some legislators are using the cloning bill as a precursor to a broader ban on embryonic stem-cell research.
Not so, says the Assembly sponsor of the cloning ban. Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake, insists he would prefer to allow carefully regulated stem cell research but ban cloning, which he sees as a far larger ethical threat.
“If I had my way, the Legislature wouldn’t even be debating stem-cell research a year from now,” Kestell told me.
Kestell’s implied suggestion is that opponents of cloning would adopt a “hands off” stance toward human embryonic stem cell research if a comprehensive ban on cloning became law.
Most UW officials are skeptical of such a trade-off. While Kestell can be taken at his word, other lawmakers wouldn’t necessarily be bound by it. The state’s pro-life lobby is not renowned in the Capitol for accepting half-a-loaf compromises, and it could press to resurrect a stem cell research ban in a few years.
The outcome of this debate is important. Wisconsin pioneered human embryonic stem cell research for the world, thanks to the efforts of UW-Madison Professor James Thomson and his team. The payoff for Thomson’s 1998 breakthrough is still years – even decades – away. In the meantime, however, the state must be careful not to adopt laws that could slow progress or scare off talented researchers.
Wisconsin has a national reputation for setting ethical standards for research. In fact, the National Academies of Science recently recommended stem-cell research rules that mirror current practice in Wisconsin. With more reflection and honest debate on all sides, perhaps Wisconsin could produce a peaceful ending to the “Clone Wars,” as well.