Time for the US to Ban Human Reproductive Cloning

Posted by Pete Shanks June 12, 2013
Biopolitical Times
Dr. Norbert Gleicher

Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his colleagues at the Oregon Health and Science University keep trying to dissociate their research cloning work from human reproductive cloning. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to cooperate.

Here's the reaction by the Center for Human Reproduction (CHR) to the recent news about research cloning:

In a more controversial clinical application, this research, however, also potentially points towards the possibility of creating human embryos for infertility treatments in this way. While current U.S. law prohibits human cloning for reproductive purposes, laws, can, of course, change over time, should the safety of this cloning process be established.

CHR is a long-established New York-based fertility clinic, with a history of pushing boundaries. Founder Dr. Norbert Gleicher has been an advocate of human cloning for many years. He detailed his objections to any restriction on human cloning in a 2005 article in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics [pdf], in which he insisted that "government has no place in that process." He has held that position consistently since at least 1998: while disparaging the self-promoting efforts of Richard Seed, he stated, with no apparent qualms, "I believe that human cloning will probably be done at some point."

Gleicher hit the headlines in 2001-2 by trying to persuade the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) to endorse the use of embryo screening (known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis or PGD) for sex selection. The controversial acting chair of the ASRM Ethics Committee, John Robertson, initially approved the procedure, but soon reversed the decision, and CHR then agreed to abide by the revised ASRM recommendation. It's not clear how long that lasted: CHR, like many other fertility clinics, now disregards the ASRM guideline and explicitly offers "elective gender selection."

In 2003, Gleicher experimented by inserting cells from a three-day-old male embryo into a female embryo and let the resulting "human chimera" develop for six more days. The results were reported at a conference of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology, and caused a stir. As Boston University's George Annas told the Washington Post:

It's one thing if the right-to-life community has problems with your work, but if scientists hear you talk about your work for the first time and say it's outrageous, that says something.

CHR claims to be "the fertility center you turn to when nobody else will help" (see YouTube video). Gleicher and his colleagues clearly have no fundamental qualms about the ethics of reproductive cloning, and they seem at least to accept that Mitalipov's work is a significant step in that direction. They accept that cloning is presently not legal in the United States, but leave the strong impression that they'd do it in a minute if they believed it was predictably safe — and they think that development is, at least, on the horizon.

In fact, there is no federal US prohibition against human reproductive cloning, though the FDA has asserted that it would step in to stop any such effort. Unfortunately, the FDA's position is on less than solid legal ground; it's been called "a stretch." Cloning is at present regulated as part of "a new class of human somatic cell therapy products" and the FDA claims authority over "clinical research using cloning technology to clone a human being." That was enough to deter Seed and the Raelians, but it may no longer be sufficient.

The severity of the dangers to possible children and their mothers is clear from work with animals; the attempt can only constitute unethical human research. Besides, any scheme to "revive" any particular person would inevitably be bound to failure, due to the nature of the developmental process — the result of conception and pregnancy is inherently unpredictable, even with identical DNA. Many religious people consider cloning sinful; many secularists consider it shameful. The attempt to define and control the very existence of another in this way is rejected by large majorities of people, who find cloning morally unacceptable.

Human reproductive cloning is prohibited in more than a dozen states and some 60 countries. Every scientific and medical organization that has adopted a policy on the issue opposes it. In response to the recent news, UC Davis stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler has called for reproductive cloning to be made explicitly illegal. So has Wesley Smith, a Christian conservative. And so has the Center for Genetics and Society, in our initial response.

President Obama, while restoring federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, stressed that

we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.

Thoughtful people from many different political perspectives can agree: It's time to get a law on the books, before someone tries to break the social consensus.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: