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The Final Frontier 

Depending on whom you ask, stem-cell research is either a medical godsend or further proof that God is dead.

Thursday, Jan 30 2003
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Page 4 of 9

The issue of stem-cell availability is at the root of a war of terminology. Both sides are using big words, and some of those words have frightening connotations. Ignorance is part of the problem. Because of the complexity involved, the media often choose brevity over accuracy, and the combatants fuel the war by co-opting partially a defined words to their own ends.

Cloning is one of the biggest bombs in this terminology war. ”You have to understand something,“ Weissman says. ”Cloning has as many meanings to a scientist as ice to an Eskimo or love to Oprah Winfrey.“ On the other hand, cloning, to a man like Leon Kass, means only one thing: producing carbon-copy human beings.

Leon Kass is yet another controversial man at the center of this battle. He is a University of Chicago bioethicist who believes that life begins at conception and who now heads up President Bush‘s Council on Bioethics. Time magazine called him the president’s ”ethics cop.“ The council is charged with advising Congress and the administration on stem cells. A few years ago Kass wrote a now-famous article for The New Republic titled ”Preventing a Brave New World or Why We Should Ban Human Cloning Now.“ He explained the aforementioned procedure called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the principal means of obtaining stem cells, and disingenuously equated that process with the cloning of people. Here are a few lines taken from Kass‘ article:

What is cloning? Cloning, or asexual reproduction, is the production of individuals who are genetically identical to an already existing individual. The procedure’s name is fancy -- ”somatic cell nuclear transfer“ -- but its concept is simple. Take a mature but unfertilized egg; remove or deactivate its nucleus; introduce a nucleus obtained from a specialized (somatic) cell of an adult organism. Once the egg begins to divide, transfer the little embryo to a woman‘s uterus to initiate a pregnancy. Since almost all the hereditary material of a cell is contained within its nucleus, the re-nucleated egg and the individual into which it develops are genetically identical to the organism that was the source of the transferred nucleus.

Scientifically, Kass is correct, except -- and this is a big except -- SCNT stops short of transplanting that egg into a woman’s uterus. What Kass knows, but chooses not to acknowledge here, is that once that new egg begins to divide, one of two things can happen. The first is it could be implanted into a woman‘s uterus and develop those dreaded carbon copies. This process is called ”reproductive cloning,“ and almost every mainstream scientist the world over, including Weissman and Goldstein, opposes it.

The second thing that could happen is what opponents of this work like to call ”therapeutic cloning.“ Weissman prefers ”nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells.“ Either way, in this second scenario, once that very early embryo (a cluster of 100 or so cells called a blastocyst) is formed, there is a two-week window during which the stem cells are extracted. In doing this, the embryo becomes unsuitable for manufacturing the dreaded clones, or any other viable human form for that matter. If you wanted to create another human being, you would have about as much luck successfully implanting that enucleated embryo into a woman’s uterus as you would have growing a Buick by planting an engine block in the ground.

Kass‘ apparent attempt to equate SCNT with the ”production“ of cloned individuals becomes egregious because his knowledge and opinions are being used to enact legislation that will then affect the entire country.

A clear indication of Kass’ sway took place in the spring of 2001, when a pair of cloning bills was introduced, one in the House and one in the Senate. The original House bill went nowhere, but it was quickly rewritten and reintroduced by Dave Weldon (R-Florida). On July 31, 2001, after three hours of debate during which conservatives spoke about eugenics, commodifying humanity, the peril of private-industry control over the human genome, the need for science to operate within social and ethical norms, and -- of course -- the Nazis, the House of Representatives passed the Weldon Bill 265 to 162.

The bill (and its sister Senate bill, which was introduced by Kansas Republican Sam Brownback and is known as the Brownback Bill) seeks to outlaw all forms of cloning -- both reproductive and therapeutic -- with severe penalties of up to a $1 million and 10 years in prison for either doing research or receiving medical treatment based on that research. This means that if the French invent a stem-cell-based cure for Alzheimer‘s and you go to France and receive treatment and try to re-enter the United States, you’re not passing go, you‘re going straight to jail. The only good news is that since your Alzheimer’s is now cured, you‘ll remember the whole experience.

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