Despite pressure from President Bush to ban human cloning, either for reproduction or research, the Senate refused last week to take up a Republican measure to impose a six-month moratorium on the technology.

The bill was pushed to the Senate floor after an announcement last week by Dr. Michael West, of the Advanced Cell Technology Institute of Worcester, Mass., that his biotechnology firm had created the first cloned human embryos.

The measure failed because Republicans, attempting to push through other parts of their right-wing agenda, tied it to bills that would have allowed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to bills that would have slashed retirement benefits for railroad workers.

There is widespread agreement among lawmakers that human cloning – making of babies that are genetic replicas of adults – is immoral and should be outlawed. But the issue of cloning for research, also called therapeutic cloning, is, for many in Congress, more complex.

“I don’t see any problem in banning human cloning,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) “I think we’d get 100 to zero on that one.” But she added, “Why would we want to stop and derail stem cell research?”

Stem cells are cells that can grow into any type of tissue in the body, and scientists say they hold promise for curing and treating disease. In order to keep a patient’s body from rejecting them, however, one has to create cells that are compatible with the patient’s immune system. The way to do this, experts say, is through therapeutic cloning.

On Nov. 26 The New York Post’s Steve Dunleavy, commenting on of Dr. Michael West’s success, said, “We might as well give a detailed blueprint to every egomaniacal, crazed Frankenstein scientist in the world. Then fact would follow fiction, as in the movie, The Boys From Brazil, where Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele clones a bunch of baby Hitlers. We have just slid into one of the most slippery, frightening slopes faced by nature, religion and humanity.”

West, of course, says we should not be scared of human embryo cloning.

“We have created only cellular life, not human life,” he said on “Meet the Press” Nov. 25. “We’re trying to save people who are sick.”

West was commenting on his firm’s controversial breakthrough in creating a human embryo clone, which he says could reverse the progress of diabetes and Parkinson’s disease and even help those afflicted with spinal injuries.

“This is not an individual. They are cells … There is a great deal of misunderstanding about cloning,” said West.

West’s research into “this scary Brave New World has got people scared stiff about when the other shoe will drop,” wrote Dunleavy.

Prior to the Senate vote, the House of Representatives had already voted 265 to 162 against allowing human cloning. The house bill provides for a $1 million fine and 10-year jail term for those who violate the measure.

On Nov. 25 Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told “Meet the Press,” “I don’t believe that human cloning will be allowed.” But asked whether he thought there would be a human clone created in his lifetime, he added: “I hope not, but I believe we will see it … This has profound implications.”

Asked the same question, Sen, Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said, “I think it will be, perhaps outside the United States.”

Already, Dunleavy pointed out, we have one stateside doctor, Dr. Panayiotis Michael Zanos of Kentucky, who has said that if he can’t clone a human here, he will go overseas. Ditto Italian Dr. Severino Antinori, enthusiastically hoisting the banner for cloning. And then there is Dr. Brigette Boisseler, a member of a remote religion known as the “Raelians,” a UFO cult that has set up shop for cloning in the Bahamas.

The Post’s Dunleavy is afraid because he feels that all these people have to do is read West’s research and “they are 75 percent along the way, because West’s human embryo has only to be implanted in a woman, and, hey – presto! – we have the “Boys from Brazil.”

The “right to life” people consider the cloned embryo to be a cloned human entity that would then be killed in order to harvest its stem cells. Human life begins at conception, they argue, so this is murder. This, they feel, overrides the argument that stem cells can give life where diabetes and other diseases take it away.

If we accept their argument we would have to stop in vitro fertilization (IVF), now widely used to help couples who otherwise could not have children. The Right to Life Movement tried to stop IVF before it began, claiming it would usher in an era of “test-tube babies.”

There are major issues regarding therapeutic cloning that both sides in the debate seem to be missing.

The issues revolve around the basic questions of who creates medical technology and for what purpose, who controls the delivery of the fruits of that technology to the people who need it, and at what cost and who benefits from any advance in medical technology.

In the last century biotechnologists developed the polio vaccine, which, when made available on a mass scale in this country, eliminated the disease. Everyone befitted.

Today, thousands die each year of the complications of diabetes because they cannot afford treatments currently available. Many die of strokes, for example, never having known that the culprit was diabetes because they had never even been tested for the disease. How would these people afford access to stem cell research cures?

While the right-to-life people and Congressional Republicans warn of the Brave New World they fear from Dr. West’s research, they remain silent about the Brave New World that is already here – a world in which there are two types of health care – one for those living inside a fortress of wealth and privilege and another for everybody else on the outside.

AIDS research has yielded technology that allows people to live 20 or more years with the virus. Yet millions in Africa die of this disease, having received no treatment at all.

Despite these larger problems many medical scientists are in favor of therapeutic cloning. The National Academy of Sciences came out in September urging that federal funding go to therapeutic cloning. Many scientists hold that the technology involved in creating an embryo that is five days old does not constitute reproductive cloning.

Advanced Cell Technology says it is not trying to implant an embryo into a womb and get it to a live birth. Many medical scientists feel this would be unethical even for safety reasons at this point.

A recent U.S. News and World Report cover page heralded Dr. West’s research as “The First Human Clone – the inside story – How American Scientists Made History by Creating Life-Saving Embryo Cells.” This was technically inaccurate. A clone would be a human being that was an exact copy of somebody else.

No one really knows whether the cells that are in Dr. West’s laboratory, were they to be put into a woman’s uterus, would grow up to be an exact copy of the man who donated the skin cells that were put into the egg.

We do know, however, that most of the scientific community believes that reproductive cloning involves risks to both mother and fetus that make it unwarranted at this time. Even Dr. West says that “we support a restriction on cloning for reproductive purposes until the safety and ethical issues surrounding it are resolved.”

I don’t think we can expect a final resolution of the “safety and ethical” issues to come, however, from a health care industry run for profit or from its backers in government.

When we look at a 25-year history of selling germ warfare research to high bidders around the world we see how reliable biotechnology firms can be in resolving “ethical” issues.

A broad-based, public-funded, democratically controlled health-care system should prove much more trustworthy in overseeing both medical research and the distribution of medical resources currently available.

On the research level we have learned that the human egg has thousands of wonderful proteins that can take our DNA back in time and rejuvenate it. Scientists may learn how the egg does this. A research system supported by a people’s health-care network might find out how it could be done synthetically, eliminating the need to use eggs.

Such an approach, even for research, however, requires freedom from restrictions imposed by right-to-lifers and, perhaps even more important, freedom from constraints that come from having to show good quarterly profit reports. Our current health-care system cannot free itself from either of these constraints.

It is not science or technology that is the enemy. It is leaving technology and science in the hands of the people now in control that threatens us all with the Brave New World.

John Wojcik is a regular contributor.

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