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FEATURE: Does Pro-Life Cloning Exist? The Debate Rages On | Valerie Schmalz | June 16, 2005

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Can techniques of human cloning be altered to serve life in a morally acceptable way? The question is debated even as the U.S. Senate may be poised to pass funding bill.

Pro-life scientists and ethicists trying to find a middle way in the national firefight over embryonic stem cell research believe they may have come up with a way to mimic the cloning process to produce embryonic stem cell-like cells–but without creating or destroying an embryo.

Lawmakers under attack for opposing embryonic stem research have latched onto the idea and may well succeed in funding research into the new theories by year’s end.

Meanwhile, a small number of philosophers and scientists believe it is impossible to genetically engineer the cloning process to an ethically acceptable end and are fighting a rear-guard action against the ideas.

In the Senate, vocally pro-life Sen. Rick Santorum plans to join with Majority Leader Bill Frist and Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi to sponsor legislation to fund research into developing human pluripotent stem cells without killing tiny humans.

Human pluripotent stem cells are plastic and scientists say they are capable of developing into any of the 200-plus differentiated cells in the human body. So far, however, no successful therapies have resulted, while non-embryo-destructive adult stem cells have yielded dozens of useful treatments.

"There may be some scientific benefit from doing embryonic stem cell research," said Santorum, a Catholic. "So I’m not against the research per se as long as it can be done ethically."

The legislation would be based on the idea of alternative sources of the cells described in a White Paper titled "Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells" and presented by the President’s Council on Bioethics in May, and on a newer theory supported by 35 pro-life scientists and ethicists presented in a Wall Street Journal June 20 guest editorial.

Pro-abortion senators such as Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin are giving grudging support. "Let’s be clear, these alternative approaches are nothing but theories. They are hypothetical, speculative, and totally unproven," Harkin said. "Should we pursue these alternative methods? Absolutely."

"You have to have a third option," Providence College biologist and moral theologian Fr. Nicanor Austriaco said, remarking as a priest he sees that many people believe embryonic stem cells will yield a cure to diseases such as Parkinson’s. "A third option has to be given in order to convince, in a way that many people are not convinced, that the pro-life side is also pro-patient."

Senate Action Centers Around Embryonic Stem Cell Funding Bill

Republican Senate leaders are working with the Democratic leadership to bring a package of at least five cloning and stem cell bills to the floor as early as the week of July 18th, before the Senate adjourns for the August recess. At the heart of the debate will be a bill to loosen federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell funding that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives 238-194. The Senate is also expected to pass the bill, which would allow the use of "discarded" in-vitro fertilization embryos to be used for federally funded research, U.S. bishops’ conference pro-life lobbyist Richard Doerflinger said. President George W. Bush has promised to veto the legislation.

The federal research funding restrictions put in place in 2001 by President Bush limit funding to embryonic stem cell lines in existence at that time and prohibit the killing of any more embryos for research.

At the same time the House passed the in-vitro embryo expansion of federal research funding in May, it voted 431-1 for the Cord Blood Stem Cell Act of 2005. That bill would authorize $15 million in federal funds during fiscal year 2006 and as needed through fiscal year 2010 to subsidize cord blood banks. Umbilical cord blood is being used in successful adult stem cell therapies to treat leukemia, aplastic anemia, and a number of other diseases. The U.S. bishops’ conference opposes the first bill and supports the second. President Bush said he would sign the cord blood act.

In the Senate debate, several other bills will be added to the mix, Santorum said. In addition to the bill to promote development of ethical alternatives to human pluripotent stem cells–or embryonic-stem cell-like cells–a national ban on human cloning, and a ban on the creation of chimeras (which mix human and animal DNA) will be debated. Doerflinger said the cloning ban is unlikely to pass, although it has already been approved twice by the House of Representatives in past years, but the chimera ban should be approved.

If the alternative human pluripotent stem cells bill is approved, it would then go to the House of Representatives for a vote.

Senate leaders from both parties are negotiating the rules of the floor debate and votes but a 60-vote majority (which would be filibuster-proof) would probably be required for passage and probably no amendments to the bills could be added on the Senate floor.

"What you might end up with is Congress passing four or five bills. And the president signs only the ones that don’t destroy embryos," said Doerflinger, deputy director for the Secretariat for Pro-life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"And we end up, when the smoke clears, with advances in stem cell research without promoting the destruction of life–which would be a wonderful result."

Do Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells Exist?

For the past six months to a year, a furious discussion has been waged within the community of pro-life scientists and ethicists as they try to find an alternative to the killing of embryos while providing the same type of cell for scientists to use for research. Scientists, particularly some of those associated with the President’s Council on Bioethics, believed that this could provide a third way.

As Council chairman Leon Kass wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published July 12 ("A Way Forward on Stem Cells"), alternative methods might provide a "technological solution to the (moral) dilemma" of embryo-killing research.

"Senators will be given a chance to enact legislation to increase funding for alternative sources," he wrote. "They should not miss this timely and most promising opportunity for scientific and ethical statesmanship

Four theories related to finding ethical means of creating human pluripotent stem cells, or embryonic-stem cell like cells, were published in a White Paper by the President’s Council on Bioethics in May.

But the theory that has garnered the most interest is the one that was published after the White Paper was released. Called oocyte-assisted reprogramming, it is a variation on the cloning procedure that its advocates say skips the creation of the embryo and jumps directly to the creation of the human pluripotent stem cells. Opponents, including David Prentice, a scientist with the Family Research Council, and Adrian Walker, a Catholic philosopher and associate editor of Communio, say it may not be possible to skip the embryonic stage and thus a very tiny human could be killed.

Public Support for Embryo-Destructive Research Grows

With celebrities such as Michael J. Fox and former First Lady Nancy Reagan touting embryonic stem cell research, it is perhaps not surprising that a Parade Magazine poll published July 10th found 57 percent of Americans support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The poll surveyed 1,000 people by telephone and had a plus or minus sampling error of 3.1 percent.

"There’s enormous political pressure on this. The major media, all these people are clamoring for embryonic stem cell research," said William May, the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. May (a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission), joined the group of 35 scientists and ethicists who signed the statement supporting animal research into oocyte-assisted reprogramming.

"This (if it works) is a way of obtaining pluripotent stem cells without killing human embryos. That’s what’s immoral, killing embryos," May told IgnatiusInsight.com.

Other ideas on the table include extracting cells from an early embryo in a biopsy procedure and culturing them, trying to get adult stem cells to de-differentiate backward, and extracting cells from IVF embryos determined to be dead. Bishops’ pro-life lobbyist Doerflinger says only the de-differentiation procedure and animal testing of the OAR theory are acceptable to the Catholic Church.

The federal government has restricted federal funding to all but a few embryonic stem cell lines developed with embryos killed before August 9, 2001. In response, so far California, New Jersey and Connecticut have authorized funding of human embryonic stem cell research. Illinois’ governor, despite legislative defeat of embryonic stem cell funding, signed an executive order this month to fund it.

Pros and Cons of the OAR Theory

The theory of oocyte-assisted reprogramming would involve transferring the nucleus of an adult cell–the nucleus is the part of the cell that contains the genetic code–into an egg without its own nucleus, to create a new cell. Because of prior genetic alterations to both the transferred nucleus and the egg, the resulting cell–the OAR theory proposes–would in fact be a pluripotent stem cell with properties identical to embryonic stem cells. Where it differs from cloning is that the goal of OAR is that the egg lacking its nucleus and the transferred nucleus are used to produce a pluripotent cell while completely skipping any embryonic stages.

The debate over this theory is distinguished both by the number of orthododox Catholic thinkers and scientists who support animal testing of it and by the fact those most strongly opposed to it on moral grounds share the same faithful Catholic beliefs.

OAR is a variation of the theory of altered nuclear transfer, a modified cloning process which proposes to avoid embryo creation completely. It was proposed by Stanford University Dr. William Hurlbut–who describes himself as Christian but not Catholic–to the President’s Council on Bioethics in December. The OAR form of the theory is designed to avoid the problems many pro-life people saw in ANT’s original form. In that form, a gene was deleted during the process and some said a genetically deformed embryo could result rather than a tumor with human pluripotent stem cells, as Hurlbut believed. In the OAR theory, a gene is hyper expressed so that the reprogramming skips completely over the totipotent stage where it is possible to develop into a complete human to the stage of being able to develop into many different kinds of cells but not into one being.

"OAR is a method that can be tested and applied very quickly, because it already uses existing technologies," said Oregon Health and Science University’s Markus Grompe, who serves on the board of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. He wrote the Wall Street Journal piece with Princeton University’s Robert George.

Of the nearly three dozen scientists and bioethicists who signed the statement supporting animal testing are notably faithful Catholic ethicists such as Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Germain Grisez, May, Austriaco, and Archbishop John Myers, archbishop of Newark, N.J.

Primary orthodox Catholic opponents are David Schindler, editor in chief of Communio, a sister publication of a journal of the same name founded in Germany by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and Communio associate editor Adrian Walker. Walker says the many Catholics supporting this theory have been led astray by their hope of finding a political alternative. No matter how briefly it is in play, the fusion of an ennucleated egg (without a nucleus) and a donor cell, creates an early human, he contends.

"There’s a real danger of wanting this to be true, because if it were true, it would have such political significance," Walker said in a conversation from Frieburg, Germany.

"When I read the list of people who signed the joint statement in the Wall Street Journal, I couldn’t get to sleep that night. (I thought) Oh, my God, what’s happened to all these staunch defenders of life from conception to the grave–why don’t they see there’s a problem with this?"

The Family Research Council’s science advisor and evangelical Christian David Prentice also opposes the OAR idea in general although he would accept animal testing. "I don’t like it. I still feel like you are sabotaging development of an embryo," he said. Prentice also serves as science advisor to Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a Catholic convert and one of two main co-sponsors of the Senate legislation to ban human cloning.

Prentice said the story of adult stem cells is the success story and this only diverts attention.

"There are now at least a dozen published scientific papers showing that some adult stem cells are pluripotent, in other words, they have the ability to form all of the adult tissues," Prentice said. "And by focusing on embryonic stem cells, they take the focus off of the success that we’ve seen in thousands of patients with adult stem cells and with cord blood stem cells."

Austriaco said animal testing will answer worries about whether an embryo is created. If a mouse embryo results, that will end discussion, Austriaco said. "Put it in a mouse and see if it grows up. This is a very easy test we can do with mice that we couldn’t do with people," Austriaco said.

"That sounds really simple and obvious," retorts Walker. "But what I’m saying is the real issue in this debate is what are the criteria for deciding when something’s a human being? If you have the wrong criteria, you are going to misunderstand what the laboratory testing is telling you."

Fr. Pacholczyk, director of education for The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said Walker misunderstands the process and only partial reprogramming of the cell, which is a part of the cloning process, takes place so there is never an embryo.

Catholic pro-life stem cell scientist Grompe points out that it was only in 1998 that the existence of human embryonic stem cells was discovered while in previous decades animal embryonic stem cells were primarily used to genetically engineer mice for research.

"I am not saying ES cells are superior to adult cells," Grompe said. "I am just stating the fact that the research has not been going on long enough to know if ES-derived cells are better or worse."

Also see the following IgnatiusInsight.com articles:

Cloning and Stem Cell Bills Set To Be Up For Senate Debate | Valerie Schmalz | July 16, 2005
Cloning and Stem Cells: Definitions of Key Terms
| Valerie Schmalz | July 16, 2005

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.

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