Question for voters Nov. 7 boils down to worries versus hopes

Friday, August 18, 2006

No politicians anywhere actively support the creation of cloned human beings. And talk of cloning raises the specter of sci-fi classics such as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or "Brave New World."

But for those opposing Amendment 2, the horror of cloning extends to the petri dish, where the techniques first pioneered to produce Dolly the sheep could be used to foster stem-cell lines identical to a living donor.

To battle Amendment 2, opponents are combining pro-life rhetoric that proclaims life begins at conception with visions of out-of-control science. Embryonic stem-cell research destroys a human life, they claim, and creating life, even at that primitive level, via the techniques that can also be used to create living clones adds to their moral outrage.

For their part, supporters of Amendment 2 deny that their proposal could result in live-birth carbon copies of living humans, pointing to the measure's harsh criminal penalties for even attempting such a birth. And they question whether legal protections for living beings should be extended to embryos created in a laboratory for research purposes.

For voters, the question on Nov. 7 boils down to whether the creation of human genetic copies in a lab for research and therapeutic purposes is worrisome enough to overcome the hope of such research for dramatic cures.

"There is pretty much universal opposition to trying to bring forth a cloned baby," said Dr. Robert Onder of the Washington University School of Medicine. Onder is a leading organizer of Missourians Against Human Cloning, which is leading the in-state opposition to Amendment 2.

"They are creating human life for the purpose of destroying it, clone-and-kill research," Onder said. "They are against cloning, but they are for cloning as long as you kill the embryos."

Dr. Bill Neaves, president and chief executive officer of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, said he's confident Amendment 2 will keep any new techniques developed in the lab from being used to create living cloned humans.

Amendment 2 is a response to legislative attempts to ban all embryonic stem-cell research, including research with genetically identical embryos. Supporters of Amendment 2 would have gladly left the job of banning human cloning to the Missouri Legislature if lawmakers had agreed to allow advanced research, Neaves said.

Missouri law currently allows both creation of embryos through cloning methods and the placement of those embryos in a woman's uterus. The only limitation on either activity is that state money cannot be used for reproductive cloning. Federal law is also silent on both issues.

"We would have welcomed a law banning any attempt to place a blastocyst in a uterus," Neaves said. "Why that hasn't been passed is because of those individuals who insist that a few cells in a lab dish is already a person."

Extensive material explaining cloning and embryonic stem-cell research using both cloning techniques and fertilized embryos underway worldwide is available on the Internet.

Here's how it works:

Researchers begin with eggs harvested from donors. An egg can be fertilized with a male sperm or the nucleus containing the genetic material can be removed and replaced with the genes from another human.

The latter procedure, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, is the technique that scientists have used to create all living cloned animals, including the famous sheep, Dolly, that was the first living cloned mammal.

Once the egg is fertilized or implanted with genetic material, it begins dividing. In about five days, scientists engaged in embryonic research break apart the bundle of cells, known as a blastocyst, to begin growing a culture of stem cells.

A blastocyst is also the developmental stage used by fertility clinics when they attempt in-vitro fertilization.

Amendment 2 bans any attempt to place an embryo created by somatic cell nuclear transfer into a woman's uterus. Doing so would bring a penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if the proposal is approved by voters.

"When you or I or any scientist or any person on the street hears the term 'human clone,' I submit that what that calls to mind among scientists and laypeople alike is human version of Dolly the sheep," Neaves said.

The first clones were frogs. Mammals were much harder. Cloning primates has been especially difficult -- no living primate clone has been achieved -- and the first cloned human embryo was created in 2001 in Worchester, Massachusetts.

Leaders of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, the group supporting Amendment 2, want to portray the creation of an embryo as far different from the creation of a living being.

"Making a human version of Dolly the sheep can only occur in a uterus," Neaves said. "We are outlawing any attempt to place the embryo in a uterus. It is as clear a legal prohibition as you can possibly have."

Onder disagrees, contending that there is no scientific distinction between a cloned embryo created for reproduction and one created for research. "It is not the stem cells we are seeking to protect, it is the human being in the embryonic stage. Dr. Neaves finds it so inconceivable that a 200-cell human embryo 7 days old is a person. Well, I was and so were you and so is everyone else who has walked on this planet."

That view, Neaves said, is based on religion, not science. "The fact is that some people sincerely believe that a few undeveloped cells in a lab dish are a person, the same as a young person with diabetes or an old person with Parkinson's. For people who sincerely believe that, I have great respect.

"However, I think it is entirely inappropriate for people who hold that belief to impose it on the rest of society as it would be for Jehovah's Witnesses to outlaw blood transfusions."

For both sides, whether the research should continue, either with fertilized or cloned embryos, is a moral issue.

"What we are saying is that it is wrong to kill a human being directly and intentionally for some other purpose, in this case for highly speculative research," Onder said. "That is what we object to."

Neaves, who said he is a born-again Christian, said he has studied scripture carefully and finds no basis for believing the research he advocates is wrong.

"I have complete confidence that the pursuit of research from stem cells in lab dishes is an absolute fulfillment of the biblical mandate to heal the sick," he said. "For people who believe otherwise, they are welcome to turn their back on the research."

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