On Tuesday the US House of Representatives passed a bill that
would ban the cloning of human embryos and thus curtail certain
forms of stem cell research. The two of us, a women's health
activist and a prochoice biologist, provided testimony before
a congressional committee last month in favor of this bill.
Why would political progressives and defenders of reproductive
autonomy advocate restricting what some have characterized as
an area of medicine with great promise, thus finding ourselves
on the same side of the issue as antichoice conservatives? We
believe that any benefits that may result from stem cell research
that utilizes ''clonal embryos,'' that is, genetic duplicates
of existing individuals, would be far outweighed by the threats
to women's health and to our sense of our humanity posed by
creation of such embryos.
Because clonal human embryos could be used for experimental
purposes and ultimately as sources of donor-matched embryo stem
cells, some researchers and biotechnology companies have been
resisting any restrictions on their ability to produce them.
Recently, Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester announced that
it has already movged forward with producing clonal embryos
using methods similar to those used to clone Dolly the sheep.
However, many scientists and physicians oppose bringing clonal
embryos to term. Their primary basis for this opposition are
the hazards that have led to fetal and postnatal deaths, birth
defects, and health problems with advancing age, in the majority
of cloned animals to date.
Although these reasons alone are sufficient to halt reproductive
cloning experimentation, we believe that social and ethical
considerations should still be paramount in creating public
policy surrounding clonal technologies, even if research with
clonal human embryos and cloned animals bring the technical
problems under control.
Supporters of women's health and reproductive rights have been
relatively silent on human reproductive cloning (where a clonal
human embryo is brought to term) and stem cell research that
depends on cloned embryos. However, a recent statement signed
by more than 100 prochoice advocates and organizations calls
for an effective ban on human reproductive cloning.
Some signatories are concerned primarily with the risks to
women's and children's health and do not want women and children
subjected to mass experimentation of the sort we are now seeing
with cows, sheep, and pigs. Moreover, women whose eggs are harvested
for cloning have to be treated with hormones to induce superovulation,
possibly putting them at increased risk of ovarian cancer with
no benefit to themselves. Other signatories emphasize that cloning
would violate deeply and widely held convictions about human
individuality and dignity. Any person produced in this fashion
would be an experiment, someone designed to possess specific
characteristics of a preexisting genetic prototype - not the
normal genetic ''roll of the dice'' that has led to each of
us being a genetically unprecedented individual.
It will be all but impossible to enforce a ban on the creation
of fully formed human clones if clonal embryo research is allowed
to proceed. In the current climate, with several ''cowboy''
researchers already moving forward with efforts to bring cloned
humans to full term, it is critical that public policies actively
thwart such efforts - at least until international agreements
that would effectively ban the cloning of genetic duplicate
humans are firmly in place. Otherwise some clonal embryos are
likely to be implanted in the uteri of women who are willing
to be part of such cloning experiments.
And what new assaults on a woman's reproductive rights would
follow from her gestating a banned clonal embryo or wanting
to terminate a pregnancy involving some company's ''property?''
Advocates of human reproductive cloning and other forms of inheritable
genetic modification have attempted to appropriate the language
of reproductive rights to support their case. But there is an
immense difference between seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy
and seeking to create a genetically duplicated or modified human
being. It is an unfortunate consequence of the rise of the new
genetic technologies that ''reproductive choice'' is increasingly
taken to include the right to manipulate the genetic composition
of the next generation.
A ban on creating clonal embryos would not foreclose the use
of human embryos resulting from in-vitro fertilization procedures
for valid medical research, including their use to generate
embryonic stem cells. Assertions that clonal embryos will be
essential in the development of currently sought medical therapies
are premature, and alternative avenues of stem cell research
and other approaches to dealing with immune system rejection
might well achieve these therapeutic goals without ever utilizing
stem cells from clonal embryos.
As the new genetic and reproductive technologies proliferate,
the question continually arises as to where to draw the line.
Because embryo cloning will compromise women's health, turn
their eggs and wombs into commodities, compromise their reproductive
autonomy, and, with virtual certainty, lead to the production
of ''experimental'' human beings, we are convinced that the
line must be drawn here.
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