A Korean company recently announced that they have successfully implanted a cloned human embryo – a first, and highly controversial, step into a mix of science and ethics. VOA-TV’s “NewsLine” program sought out two experts on the subject of cloning, who debated two dimensions of the topic. Richard Doerflinger, with the U.S. Conference of Bishops thinks the ethical and moral issues should stop scientists from creating human clones. Sean Tipton, Director of Public Affairs for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, speaks in favor of therapeutic cloning of human cells. Their debate was moderated by VOA’s David Borgida.
Joining us now for our Pro and Con debate, in favor of cloning human cells, Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and against, Richard Doerflinger, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Thank you both, gentlemen, for coming in on a very hot day in Washington, but this is, to some extent, a hot topic that we will be discussing. Could you both give me your sort of very short view of where your group and you stand on this? Let's begin first with Mr. Tipton, please.
What I want to make clear is that no legitimate group is in favor of reproductive cloning. However, we need to distinguish that from cloning, which is a replication of cells, which might be used for research into important therapies, which could be used to help people suffering from Parkinson's disease or diabetes to regenerate tissues, which could be used to cure themselves.
Mr. Doerflinger, your thoughts?
Well, there is only one procedure called human cloning, and that is this procedure called somatic cell nuclear transfer. And that makes a cloned embryo. Then there are two things you can do with that embryo. You can destroy that life for the sake of its stem cells, as Mr. Tipton wants to allow. Or you can put that embryo in a womb and allow it to be born alive.
The difference between the two is that if you try to get a live birth, you probably have about a 99 percent death rate. And if you destroy it in the laboratory, you get a 100 percent death rate. We are not in favor of either one of those death rates. We think human cloning is an inherently morally objectionable way of turning human reproduction into ‘manufacture to order’ of fellow human beings. It shouldn't be used for any purpose.
Is that what you're talking about?
Well, I think it is important to distinguish at what stage of development these entities are. What we are talking about is using the somatic cell nuclear transfer process. That is, taking an adult cell out of the body, putting it into an egg from which the nucleus and genetic material has been removed, then you spark it and it begins development. And when it gets about five days into the process, you can then remove one of the cells from that blastocyst -- which is what it is known as at that stage -- and you can use that then to grow up different kinds of tissues.
So while these are worthy of respect, we don't think that it is the equivalent of a human being. So we think at some level you have to choose which is more important -- this entity in this petri dish or this patient with diabetes or with Parkinson's.
Well, that's the false dilemma that we have been presented with by groups like Mr. Tipton's. Because right now we have announcements from Dr. Michel Levesque, for example, that he has managed, using adult stem cells from the patient's own brain, to reverse Parkinson's disease. We have new announcements from Canada, and now from several medical centers in Washington State, enormous advances in reversing diabetes. Ninety percent of the patients in these initial trials have been able to reduce their insulin injections. Half of them were able to throw away their insulin needles.
Progress in medicine is moving forward as we speak. And it is moving forward most quickly in many areas with things that are completely morally acceptable -- adult stem cells, umbilical cord cells, stem cells from the bone marrow. You don't need cloning to do any of that. In fact, the growing scientific consensus from experts in stem cell research is that what some call therapeutic cloning is simply not necessary. It is too ineffective, wasteful, expensive, has too many practical and moral problems to really pursue.
I don't think it's true that that is where the scientific consensus is. The National Academy of Sciences and virtually every scientific group of repute that has taken a look at this has said we must proceed with all forms of stem cell research, embryonic stem cell research and somatic cell nuclear transfer work. And I think it is important to listen to the scientists, who are going to proceed ethically, and to allow this work to continue.
I think that Mr. Doerflinger is correct, there has been tremendous advances using adult stem cells and other techniques. And almost every scientist working in that field will tell you they learned how to do what they can do by the knowledge that was gained in working with embryonic stem cells. So even the most prominent of the adult stem cell researchers say we should pursue both avenues.
Well, that's impossible, since human embryonic stem cells were only isolated in 1998, and we have been using adult stem cells and curing people with them for 20 years.
But the scientific consensus I'm talking about is not these political groups. It is the scientists themselves. Jamie Thompson and John Gearhart are probably the most prominent stem cell researchers in the United States. Both of them have said that this idea of using cloning to get these therapies is going to be enormously expensive and wasteful and may not work at all.
Just this past Friday the biggest Australian expert in stem cell research, Alan Trounson, said the same thing. He said that we're already finding so many more effective ways to solve the problems that cloning was offered for that he thinks it is already becoming obsolete. This is an agenda without a real medical or scientific justification, but with a great many moral and social implications down the road.
I assure you, if you were to put the question to all three of those scientists just mentioned, they would all say embryonic stem cell work and somatic cell nuclear transfer should and must proceed.
Sure, because they have the different moral view; they don't think the embryo is worth anything morally. But we are not interested in the scientists for their moral views or their political opinions; we are interested in the science, which is proceeding very well, thank you, without cloning.
I think moral disagreements are fine and to be expected. There are people who think animal research is wrong, and they will not avail themselves of the advances made with animal research. And they should be free to do that. There are people who think blood transfusions is wrong, and they should be allowed not to have blood transfusions. But they should not be allowed to deny the hope to the millions of the rest of us who may benefit from those technologies.
Well, those millions may in fact be zero who may benefit from these technologies. And in fact this obsession with cloning is diverting resources and attention away from things that are far closer to really helping real patients. And it may well slow medical progress.
The thing about animal research, the people who are against animal research are not in the majority. But there is a lot of public opinion in the United States, a majority, saying we do not want to be cloning human embryos to be destroyed in research. That is something that goes too far in the direction of just completely objectifying and denigrating human life, yes, at a very early stage. But creating life solely to destroy it for research is a moral line we have not crossed before and I don't think we should.
Mr. Doerflinger, you have the last word in our Pro and Con segment. Thank you both, Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and Richard Doerflinger from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it. A fascinating discussion.