In lifting restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research this month, did President Obama leave the door open to human cloning? To hear Obama say it, the answer is unequivocally no. "We will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction," he said in a speech before signing the executive order that reversed George W. Bush's limits on embryonic stem cell research. "It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society."
In the days since, however, a slew of conservative Christian groups have charged Obama with misleading the public on human cloning. They accuse him of saying he's taking a zero-tolerance approach when he's not. That's because the president may allow federal funding for somatic cell nuclear transfer, a cloning process in which scientists produce embryos to provide stem cells for research, not for implantation. Some religious groups argue that regardless of whether the embryos are created for research or for reproduction, it is cloning. But the cloned embryos have never been implanted in a woman's uterus, and researchers say that they are unlikely to develop into viable fetuses even if they were. Scientists generally don't consider the process to be human cloning. After all, nothing resembling a human being is ever produced.
But religious conservatives are charging that Obama is supporting human cloning if he allows somatic cell nuclear transfer to go forward with government money. Obama will make the decision after receiving recommendations on embryonic stem cell research guidelines from the National Institutes of Health this summer. "[Obama] may be for cloning, as long as the cloned embryo is destroyed," the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Press reported recently. "Opponents call it 'cloning and killing.' " Scientists, meanwhile, say religious conservatives are confusing the public about human cloning. "No legitimate scientist wants to make human clones," says Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "The only people that care about this are critics of embryonic stem cell research, who use it as a battering ram against the research. It is purely political."
To influence the guideline-drafting process at NIH and in the White House, social conservatives are raising a firestorm over somatic cell nuclear transfer, which means the debate over what constitutes human cloning is likely to intensify.
In conservative religious circles, equating cloned embryos that have little or no chance of survival with human cloning has become commonplace. Princeton University Prof. Robert P. George argues that Obama incorrectly narrowed the definition of human cloning by prohibiting only cloning that is intended for human reproduction. " 'Reproductive cloning' is a misleading term," George, a leading social conservative and a member of Bush's Council on Bioethics, wrote in an E-mail that I posted on my God & Country blog earlier this week. "It refers not to cloning itself but rather to what one does or intends to do with the clone, i.e., the embryonic human being created by cloning."
The conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights rescinded its initial praise of Obama's stated opposition to human cloning because of his refusal to rule out federally supported somatic cell nuclear transfer. "Media reports which said that President Obama banned human cloning were wrong," the Catholic League said several days after commending Obama for rejecting human cloning.
During his administration, President Bush went so far as to oppose human cloning bans being considered by Congress because they outlawed reproductive cloning while permitting somatic cell nuclear transfer.
During that process, scientists remove the nucleus of an egg cell and replace it with cells from an organism whose DNA they want to clone, creating a fused, embryolike cell. It's the process Scottish scientists used to create the cloned sheep Dolly in 1997. The hope for humans is that somatic cell nuclear transfer would allow scientists to generate stem cells from sick people whom they are trying to treat, rather than relying on stem cells from excess embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics. This is preferred because the body often rejects stem cells from such foreign sources. So far, the work is theoretical. Scientists have yet to harvest embryonic stem cells via somatic cell nuclear transfer.
Scientists say that rather than create embryos, as religious conservatives allege, somatic cell nuclear transfer creates embryolike cells that have little chance of survival were they to be implanted in a woman's uterus. "Nature would not consider this an embryo," says Jonathan Moreno, a University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist who oversaw bioethics issues for Obama's transition team.
In the case of Dolly, it took 277 tries to clone a sheep. Even if they wanted to produce a human clone, scientists say, it would be difficult to recruit the hundreds of women necessary to try to turn fused cells into a viable fetus. "Nobody wants to do this," says Moreno. "It has no purpose, and it's a red herring."
The NIH has until July to issue its recommendations. But both scientists and religious conservatives expect Obama to allow somatic cell nuclear transfer. So the question over whether the United States bans human cloning is likely to be a matter of perspective.