MADISON – After Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill that would have banned cloning of human embryonic stem cells for research purposes, the legislative director of Wisconsin’s Right to Life movement made a remark that seemed straight out of a science fiction movie. 

“We’re not talking about stem cells anymore; we’re talking about growing these embryos . . . not for stem cells but for organs and body parts,” Right to Life’s Sue Armacost was quoted as saying.

I must have missed something, I told myself. Maybe a reputable scientist somewhere had announced a breakthrough and her lab was filled with human livers, kidneys and hearts, all ready to be shipped to willing donors. A search of the Internet didn’t turn up any such news; just a few stories about scientists around the world who claim – falsely, of course – to have cloned babies.

While use of therapeutic cloning to produce “replacement” body parts is possible, the grand opening of “Body Parts ‘R Us” is years and probably decades away. Not that everyone would think producing human organs in a lab is evil, by the way, given that thousands of people die for lack of transplantable organs every year. But it’s simply not happening today.

More to the point, it’s not happening in Wisconsin, where opponents of stem cell research and related work recently persuaded the Legislature to pass a bill that would make criminals out of potential Nobel laureates.

Had the Legislature passed a bill that only banned human reproductive cloning, Doyle would have signed it in a nanosecond. Other than a tiny number of weird scientists, it’s hard to find anyone who likes the idea of implanting a cloned embryo into a woman’s womb, risking not only the health of the “mother” but almost certainly producing babies with birth defects. Those were side effects during the process that led to the cloning of Dolly the sheep.

But cloning for therapeutic reasons – meaning, carefully regulated research into disease using human embryonic embryos – is an entirely different matter.

First of all, scientists have been cloning human cells or their components for years. The process known as “DNA cloning,” “molecular cloning” or “gene cloning” has been used widely since the 1970s. It involves the transfer of a DNA fragment of interest from one organism to a self-replicating genetic element such as a bacterial plasmid. The DNA of interest can then be propagated in a foreign host cell. It’s a process used every day in molecular biology labs, and it has led to countless discoveries.

What’s new is therapeutic cloning of human stem cells. South Korean scientists were the first to report successfully doing so in early 2004, but they produced just one cell line from 200 tries. Since then, the South Korean scientists have reported creating nearly a dozen new lines of human embryonic stem cells that for the first time carry the genetic signature of diseased or injured patients. The dramatic increase in efficiency – more than one cell line for every 20 attempts — could pave the way for treating conditions such as diabetes and spinal cord injury with stem cell transplants.

Not even the South Korean scientists claim they’re close to transplanting cells into a human, however. “We have to be over-convinced” that it’s safe, said one. Still, the prospect of being able to study the root causes of a disease in an immortal, cloned line of stem cells is exciting enough.

Therapeutic cloning isn’t being done in Wisconsin today, but Doyle wisely refused to cut off the possibility it might someday happen. That is why he vetoed the so-called “human cloning bill,” not because he or any Wisconsin scientist wants to create Frankenstein’s monster or a body parts shopping mall. Doyle and a significant number of legislators from both parties simply want to hold open the possibility of continuing all forms of stem cell research in Wisconsin, the state that pioneered the process less than 10 years ago.

If that kind of work isn’t done here – under existing ethical guidelines that are a national model – it will be done someplace else. Certainly, it’s being done in South Korea and the United Kingdom, where therapeutic cloning was protected four years ago.

The debate over stem cell research is complicated enough without “sci-fi” claims that mislead policymakers and the public. Perhaps Doyle’s veto will mean the debate can now turn on science and ethics rather than rhetoric.