Rarely have science, politics, and international diplomacy converged as intensely as they have over the past few days.
Researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center have accomplished what some scientists equate with breaking the sound barrier: creating cloned embryos from an adult monkey and isolating its stem cells. Since monkeys are humans' closest relatives and embryonic stem cells might treat devastating injuries and diseases, this research has invigorated prospects for developing patient-specific embryonic stem cells for humans by copying the Oregon researchers' new approach. After all, monkey see, monkey do.
Yet another level of intrigue comes from the fact that cloning an embryo to obtain stem cells involves the same underlying process as cloning an embryo to create a living, breathing clone: taking the nucleus from a body cell, sticking it into an egg, and triggering its early development. Research cloning involves stopping this development after a few days to cull the early embryos' stem cells; reproductive cloning entails placing the developing embryo into a surrogate until the clone is born.
Scientists have not yet created a living cloned monkey. But the same Oregon researchers are working hard at it. Just as the odds suggest that research cloning in monkeys will enable it in humans, this impending step towards reproductive cloning in monkeys raises one of this century's most pressing questions: should scientists pursue human reproductive cloning?
An expert panel affiliated with the United Nations took up this very question the same week that Nature published the monkey stem cell research by issuing a report entitled "Is Human Cloning Inevitable?" Their take home message: human reproductive cloning should be banned. They even suggest that customary international law - where several nations independently share a norm without formal agreement - may already prohibit the practice.
Banning reproductive cloning makes sense for at least three reasons. First, any effort to clone a person is nothing short of unethical human experimentation. Animal cloning is remarkably inefficient, typically leading to dozens or even hundreds of stillborn and deformed clones before a single viable one is born - often with other health problems that shorten its life. Subjecting humans to these conditions is simply out of the question.
Second, reproductive cloning - like research cloning - harms the women whose eggs would be needed. Egg extraction is a risky and painful endeavor that has led to severe complications and even some deaths. Moreover, thousands of women's eggs could be sought for cloning; the Oregon scientists went through 15,000 in earlier unsuccessful attempts to clone a monkey. Although routinely performed for assisted reproduction, expanding the number of women that endure this procedure is a significant threat to women's health.
Lastly, reproductive cloning serves no justifiable medical or scientific purpose. Being able to clone a dead or living person might tickle some people's fancies, but this pales in comparison to the procedure's dire consequences.
Ironically, recent developments might make cloning less attractive to researchers. Days after the monkey embryo cloning breakthrough, researchers in Japan and Wisconsin demonstrated how human cells can be reprogrammed to exhibit embryonic characteristics - a technique that does not use cloning, eggs, or embryos. Ian Wilmut, who led the team that produced Dolly - the world's first cloned mammal - has recently abandoned cloning in favor of this new method.
But with careers invested in winning the "cloning race" and the notoriety that would surely ensue, dealing with reproductive cloning remains urgent. The ease with which a rogue scientist interested in human reproductive cloning could move to an apathetic jurisdiction makes UN involvement necessary, but not sufficient. International oversight must be matched with local and national regulations. And this is what's so remarkably lacking, most notably in the United States.
Only thirteen states currently ban reproductive cloning, and there are no federal laws against it. Moreover, the FDA has claimed jurisdiction which, given its limited mandate to focus on safety and efficacy, suggests that human reproductive cloning may someday be permissible if the procedure meets these standards.
Even more troubling, mainstream bioethics has failed to provide professional leadership for policymakers who still have their heads in the ground. For example, Arthur Caplan, the Pied Piper of bioethics whose tune many merrily follow, has noted that human reproductive cloning is too dangerous to allow without seeing success in monkeys first, suggesting that safe human reproductive cloning might someday be appropriate.
But the very idea of "safe reproductive cloning" is as oxymoronic as the term "jumbo shrimp." The dangers lurking behind producing cloned human beings are not merely technical, but also social: it would bring us ever so close to a new eugenics where we might once again start thinking it's a good idea to identify and replicate the superficial characteristics that our pride and prejudices lead us to desire - often at others' expense.
We are at an important crossroads. Regardless of which way the scientific winds blow, state and federal governments have a limited amount of time to enact comprehensive legislation that unequivocally bans reproductive cloning while allowing sensible therapeutic approaches to move forward. Let's stop monkeying around and do the right thing.