The Australian Senate in 2006, by the narrowest possible margin, approved the manufacture of human embryos by cloning. This overturned the long-standing ban on creating embryos solely for research; a ban upheld unanimously by the Senate only four years earlier, but now abandoned in the face of overwhelming scientific hype.
Within twelve months of the Senate vote, a paradigm shift in stem cell science rendered cloning redundant. This much is certain: if Parliament had known in 2006 what we know now, no cloning legislation would ever have been drafted, let alone approved.
Cloning is a human desecration and a scientific failure. It has always been unethical, in that it creates human embryos with their destruction in mind; it is now also clearly unnecessary. The Senate vote was carried in 2006 by the argument that cloning was the only possible way to obtain “pluripotent stem cells” that perfectly match the patient. That argument lies in shreds, in part through the failure of cloning to produce results but above all through the discovery of an alternative stem cell technique which is both effective and ethically uncontentious.
Cloning, for all the millions spent worldwide and all the blighted human entities created and destroyed, has failed to obtain even a single pluripotent stem cell. By contrast, the new “induced pluripotent stem cell” (iPSC) technique has obtained the desired tailor-made cells in hundreds of patients with conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis—without ever using women’s eggs or creating and destroying embryos.
And so, with the statutory review of our cloning laws tabled in federal parliament on July 7 this year, one might have expected a recommendation that the creation of human embryos solely for research be once again prohibited, given that the case for cloning is now so diminished.
To understand the actual recommendations of the Legislative Review of the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Act, and the depth of division within the Committee on the question of cloning, we need to appreciate both the transformed landscape of stem cell science and the cultural impasse of stem cell politics.
End of an era
The scientific landscape changed suddenly and irrevocably on November 21, 2007, in what was described as “an earthquake for both the science and politics of stem cell research”. On that day the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka published his breakthrough of iPSC “direct reprogramming”, creating the equivalent of cloned embryonic stem cells directly from the skin cells of a middle-aged woman, bypassing any need for eggs or embryos.
“This is the Holy Grail—to be able to take a few cells from a patient and then turn them into stem cells in the laboratory,” acknowledged Dr Robert Lanza, a cloning researcher from Advanced Cell Technology in Boston.
The clearest sign that a revolution was upon us was the headline in the London Daily Telegraph: “Dolly Creator Prof Ian Wilmut Shuns Cloning”. The king of cloning, who had brought us the first cloned mammal and who held the licence to clone human embryos in the UK, declared that he was abandoning the field he had founded: “Instead Prof Wilmut is backing direct reprogramming, the embryo-free route pursued by Prof Yamanaka, which he finds ‘100 times more interesting’ … as well as ‘easier to accept socially’.”
The other great pioneer of embryo research likewise deferred to the Yamanaka method. Professor James Thomson, the scientist who first identified human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in 1998, published a study on the same day as Yamanaka confirming that these new stem cells derived from human skin had every property of stem cells derived from embryos—but none of the ethical and political baggage. He told the New York Times it would not be long “before the stem cell wars are a distant memory”:
“A decade from now, this [controversy] will be just a funny historical footnote,” Dr Thomson said. More work remains, but he is confident that the path ahead is clear. “Isn’t it great to start a field and then to end it?”
This sense that one era had ended and another commenced in stem cell science was reinforced in a review of the Yamanaka revolution by Professor Martin Pera, who was formerly director of ESC research at the Australian National Stem Cell Centre. His article “Stem Cells: A New Year and a New Era” was published in Nature in January 2008:
Manipulating cells from adult human tissue, scientists have generated cells with the same developmental potential as embryonic stem cells. The research opportunities these exciting observations offer are limitless. The generation of induced pluripotent stem cells through direct reprogramming avoids the difficult ethical controversies surrounding the use of embryos for deriving stem cells.
The response was everywhere the same: this is marvellous science, and it gets rid of the social and ethical stress of obtaining eggs and exploiting embryos. The potential for this development to bypass the central ethical objection to cloning was recognised by Professor Loane Skene, former Chair of the Lockhart Review which advised the Australian government in 2005 to permit cloning. On the day Yamanaka’s iPSC research was published she told ABC radio:
What this does is take away the step of using the egg and creating the embryo which is particularly ethically contentious, and it offers the opportunity to get stem cells that are matched to a particular person.
In that succinct statement, one of our chief advocates for cloning reminded us of the goal that cloning failed to reach—getting stem cells that exactly match the patient—and acknowledged that this new method not only attains that goal, but is free from ethical concerns.
The new post-cloning era was summed up in January 2008 by a leading Australian researcher, Dr T.J. Martin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne:
In the past few months the scientific situation has changed dramatically in ways that should make therapeutic cloning a historical peculiarity. iPSCs have been shown to have all the properties previously attributed to embryonic stem cells, and thus provide a means of preparing individually tailored pluripotent cells without the ethical problems involved in therapeutic cloning. To this must be added the fact that iPSCs can readily be prepared, whereas human therapeutic cloning has never been achieved. If it ever had been, it is such an inefficient process that it would always have required unacceptably large numbers of egg donations by women. There is no valid reason for any government to consider approval of therapeutic cloning that requires nuclear transfer into human eggs. Indeed, it would be prudent to have the 2006 federal legislation taken off the books.
In the light of that authoritative summary we should ask the obvious question: What possible justification is there now for human cloning, given the success of the iPSC alternative? Who would take seriously the proposal that I obtain hundreds of eggs from women (at significant risk to their health) and spend vast amounts of research money in order to clone you into your identical twin embryo, in order to obtain pluripotent stem cells that match you genetically (something nobody has yet managed to achieve) when I could simply take a skin cell from your arm and obtain the equivalent stem cells easily and ethically using Yamanaka’s direct reprogramming?
It seems that even embryo researchers no longer take the cloning proposal seriously since the triumph of direct reprogramming. Rudolph Jaenisch was the first scientist to demonstrate “therapeutic cloning” in a mouse in 2002 (note: “cloning” is used interchangeably with its technical term “somatic cell nuclear transfer” or SCNT) but in March 2011 he told the Scientist: “Ten years ago, we talked about the potential of nuclear transfer for therapy. But it turns out the technique was of no practical relevance.”
In Australia, only one laboratory—Sydney IVF—has even attempted SCNT/cloning since 2006. So much for the emotional arm-twisting by political scientists, warning that failure to pass urgent cloning laws would drain our keenest brains overseas and delay cures for Australian kids. The Australian immunologist Professor Ian Frazer surely cringes now at his letter to senators on the eve of the vote, urging them to support the cloning bill “in its entirety” or be an impediment to sick children:
Will our children look back in 25 years and say “Our parliamentarians made the right decision, that gave us access to cures for diabetes, heart disease, and neurological disorders,” or will they be forced to travel to the US, Europe and Asia to seek treatments?
Instead we look back after five years and see that cloning is withering on the vine; even a world leader in embryo manipulation like Sydney IVF, having used 352 precious eggs, was not able to keep any of the twenty-seven resultant cloned embryos alive long enough to yield a single stem cell. And why, post-Yamanaka, would anyone put any more eggs in the cloning basket-case? The Director of Sydney IVF, Robert Jansen, conceded that point in a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald: “Because there are newer ways of producing cloned [sic] stem cells without using eggs, Jansen concedes that therapeutic cloning may not turn out to have a big role in medicine after all.”
It is the same story the world over: cloning is a blighted science, ethically and technically. The onus is on those who still defend cloning to explain why such a convoluted and contentious path should ever again be taken when there is an effective and ethical alternative.
That question is so obvious that even the popular media started asking it—indeed, it featured on Oprah! In a highly symbolic moment (in the presence of Michael J. Fox, Parkinson’s sufferer and prominent advocate for embryo research) Oprah’s resident expert, Dr Oz, asked why you would mess with embryos when you can simply reprogram one of your skin cells:
I think, Oprah, the stem cell debate is dead, and I’ll tell you why … The problem with embryonic stem cells is that they come from embryos, like all of us were made from embryos … In the last year we’ve made 10 years’ advancement … and here’s what the deal is: I can take a little bit of your skin (here he reaches over and touches Fox on the arm), take those cells, and get them to go back in time so they’re like they were when you were first made.
Time magazine asks whether there is now anything left to argue over:
No embryos, no eggs, no hand-wringing over where the cells came from and whether it was ethical to make them in the first place. Yamanaka’s and Thomson’s work sidestepped that altogether, raising the tantalizing question: Is the long-raging stem-cell debate at last over? Yamanaka thinks it might be. Other giants of the field seem to agree.
Yet not all will agree. People who have a lot to lose through the death of cloning—celebrity advocates like Fox, progressive politicians who see cloning as a victory over conservatives in the culture wars, scientists who have no respect for the moral status of the embryo and who reject the idea of their research or their funding being restricted by parliament—will not lightly accept an end to the stem-cell debate.
Those who wish to keep cloning on its futile life-support for a while longer will repeat fallacies, both ethical and scientific, that are wearily familiar but still effective.
In the quest by cloning advocates in 2006 to dehumanise the cloned embryo, the most deceitful argument was that it is not really a human embryo, and therefore not deserving of special respect. The clone, they said, is just “cells in a Petri dish”, or “an intermediate cellular product”. If no genuine embryo is created, there is no big deal ethically—so let’s just get on with the research. Regrettably, as the Hansard record shows, this argument misled many senators and MPs.
Clearly these politicians had not heard Professor Loane Skene confirming, in her testimony to the 2006 Senate inquiry, that cloning does indeed create a human embryo—an entity which has the capacity, like any other embryo created naturally or by IVF, to grow as a baby. She said:
We did not shy away from calling it an embryo because it is conceivable, as happened with Dolly the sheep, that if that entity were put into a woman, after a lot of care, it could in fact develop into a foetus. So we did call it an embryo.
An entity which “could in fact develop into a foetus” is nothing less, nothing other than a living human embryo. That is why the 2006 legislation, allowing the creation of this embryo solely for research and destruction, was such a momentous question of conscience. It established an inferior caste of human offspring, created not for the project of life but for experimentation and death.
Objectively, the cloned embryo is indistinguishable from an embryo created by natural fertilisation. Cloning, or SCNT, is just another way of making an embryo. It involves taking a woman’s egg from which the nucleus has been removed; transferring a new nucleus (a new genetic identity) from a donor’s cell; exposing the egg with its new nucleus to a range of stimuli in the hope that, after using a few dozen eggs, one of them might respond as if fertilised by a sperm and begin to develop and grow.
The scientist would have created an identical twin of the donor, and at a week of age it would be suitable for the extraction of stem cells from its inner cell mass—so destroying the embryo.
This is the dual desecration of cloning: not just that a human life is wrongfully destroyed for the benefit of others, but that a human life is wrongfully created out of any normal human setting. To clone is to generate the first absolute orphan, a living human embryo with no mother; only an emptied-out female egg is used, with no trace of the mother’s genetic identity. And no father, for a male donor of DNA is not a father to the clone but his identical twin. These are not beloved offspring but abused artefacts, brought into being outside the circle of human kinship and care.
Politically, for legislators to be comfortable about manufacturing a laboratory subclass of human embryos, cloning advocates needed to assure them that the cloned entity was indeed inferior to other embryos. This dehumanising strategy was an international one, and bioethicist Leon Kass, Chair of the US President’s Council on Bioethics in 2006, pleaded for honesty about the cloned embryo:
If we are properly to evaluate the ethics of this research and where it might lead, we must call things by their right names and not disguise what is going on with euphemism or misleading nomenclature. The initial product of the cloning technique is without doubt a living cloned human embryo, the functional equivalent of a fertilised egg.
Misleading nomenclature had been adopted at the highest level—the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR). A scathing editorial in Nature entitled “Playing the Name Game” reported on the June 2005 meeting of the ISSCR and accused it of attempting “to change the definition of the word ‘embryo’” and “playing semantic games in an effort to evade scrutiny”:
Whether taken from a fertility clinic or made through cloning, a blastocyst embryo has the potential to become a fully functional organism. And appearing to deny that fact will not fool die-hard opponents of this research. If anything, it will simply open up scientists to the accusation that they are trying to distance themselves from difficult moral issues by changing the terms of the debate.
A favourite name game in 2006 was to define an embryo narrowly as the entity created by union of sperm and egg. Cloning does not use a sperm to create an embryo; ipso facto the cloned entity is not an embryo! Never mind that Dolly the cloned sheep had no sperm involved in her creation, and without doubt started life as a perfectly adequate sheep embryo. Likewise Snuppy the puppy, sundry cows, horses and a dozen other mammalian species arising from cloned embryos, where of course no sperm was involved.
To its credit, the 2011 Legislative Review did not pretend that an embryo created by SCNT/cloning was anything different from a normal embryo, acknowledging that: “an SCNT created embryo, to be useful, must be an embryo with the full potential of any embryo”.
Yet even with that simple biological truth established, our lawmakers, and wider society, divide on the metaphysical question: “So what?” In the words of our Senate report from the 2002 debate on using “surplus” IVF embryos for stem cell research:
There is in fact little disagreement that the embryo is a human life and that its life commences at fertilization. The difficulties arise in specifying exactly in what sense it is to be considered “a life”, and hence what significance should be attached to it.
We can agree on the bare facts—that the embryo from day one is a living individual member of our species—but whether that individual life “matters” depends on the worldview one brings to the debate. Faced with this key question—the meaning of a human life in all its embryonic simplicity—the cultural divide shows up most starkly.
On this question of significance, the clichéd response of cloning advocates is to sneer that the embryo is “smaller than the full stop at the end of this sentence”. This idea that something small must therefore be insignificant fails to impress when we consider that the universe itself was once “smaller than the full stop at the end of this sentence”. To cosmologists, the fact that such a tiny entity contained within itself the capacity to unfold into this vast and fruitful cosmos is not a cause for sneering, but for intellectual wonder. We need similar eyes of understanding when we contemplate the embryonic human, fresh from the Big Bang of conception, unfolding into the astonishing world of a rational being.
There is also the more serious argument that an embryo cannot be considered a distinct human being until the stage of possible twinning has passed, around fourteen days of age. Until that time, we cannot know if the embryo is going to end up as one entity or two, which surely casts doubt on its moral status as an individual being.
Interestingly, it is the very phenomenon of cloning which dispels the fog of this argument. For with cloning, you or I can undergo “twinning” well past day fourteen—in fact, tomorrow if you like. Does that mean that your moral status as a true, unambiguous individual today is in question, just because tomorrow you might split off an identical twin? Prior to fourteen days, at the very least we are looking at one embryonic human; there is the happy chance of a second, younger entity arising by the phenomenon of natural cloning, or twinning, but that is no cause for downgrading the significance of either life.
Finally there is the argument that so many embryos are “wasted” naturally that they surely cannot be considered to have a full human status—even, for some theologians, full spiritual status in the eyes of God. Estimates vary wildly for embryonic loss, but even if the figure is 30 per cent I do not see how the problem is any different from the similar “wastage” of infants in the part of central Africa where I was born. Because some 30 per cent died in infancy (including children of my pioneer ancestors) does that mean they were not truly human? With all due respect, if God has a problem taking seriously the moral status of embryos because so many are “wasted”, He has the same problem with these wasted African infants, or with the high percentage of Asian babies wasted through female infanticide. And I remain unconvinced as to why a higher spiritual status should be granted to those of us who, through good luck and good environment, happen to have persisted longer on this earth. It seems prudent for theologians to give the benefit of the doubt to the most embryonic of these His brethren.
Such arguments about the humanity of the embryo do matter, because all future policy on cloning, human–animal hybridisation, prenatal eugenics, transgenic manipulation and other as yet unimagined abuses depends on the dominant cultural view of what the embryo is, and therefore how we are bound to treat it.
Fraud and fairy tales
Future policy in this field also depends on whether lawmakers demand truthfulness from scientists, or succumb to spin. Public advocacy for embryo experimentation and cloning is a case study in the willingness of some scientists to use and misuse their authority to achieve “progressive” legislative outcomes. It has been little better than an extended and embarrassing fairy tale told to gullible children. “To start with, people need a fairy tale,” said Ronald McKay, a stem cell researcher at the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”
McKay’s comment to the Washington Post was in the context of Ronald Reagan’s death from Alzheimer’s in 2004, with its attendant public outcry for increased embryo research. One Australian embryo researcher, Professor Peter Rathjen, famously dismissed any talk of stem cell therapies for Alzheimer’s as “bloody nonsense”. The Washington Post correctly noted that Alzheimer’s was not the sort of disease open to stem cell therapy, and that science was being distorted amidst the hype. Yet the fairy tale lives on; an Australian patient lobby group has recently included Alzheimer’s in its list of reasons to support our cloning laws.
Sometimes scientists admit to the hyping of hope. After permissive laws on embryo research had been approved in Britain, the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Lord Robert Winston, acknowledged that “the desire to source some stem cells from embryos—an ethically controversial area—probably led a number of the field’s proponents to hype outcomes just to get liberal legislative approval”. This year, the doyen of liberal bioethicists in the USA, Arthur Caplan, confessed: “Embryonic stem-cell research was completely overhyped, in terms of its promise. And people knew it at the time. I tried to say so myself at different times, even though I support embryonic stem-cell research.”
Sometimes scientists just lie. In 2005 South Korea’s “supreme scientist” Hwang Woo-suk duped the world into believing that he had successfully cloned human embryos. The top scientific journals vied to publish his deceit, and Australia’s Lockhart Committee based its advocacy for cloning almost entirely on the breakthrough in South Korea. One would have thought, when he was found to be a fraud in the same month as the Lockhart Review was published, that the Committee would have revised its recommendations, but no. And one would have thought Hwang’s career was finished, but in recent years he found work in Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya; Hwang was the creator of Snuppy, the first cloned puppy, and thoughts turn to “the mad dog of the Arab world” as a fit project for such a scientist.
As far back as 2002, our Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, lamented: “If we can’t believe leading scientists to give us the real truth, the real parameters for this debate, how are we as a society to form the right judgments?” His dismay was provoked by Australia’s leading advocate of embryo research, Professor Alan Trounson, who had been playing Pied Piper to enchanted MPs, showing them (and television viewers) a video of a paralysed white rat. This rat, he explained, was treated with embryonic stem cells and—voila!—could now move its hind limbs. The vote was imminent on whether to allow “surplus” IVF embryos to be used for stem cell research, and this spectacular video was the trump card of the “yes” campaign.
Unfortunately for Trounson we had a US colleague, Dr David Prentice, with us in Parliament, and David said—“I know that rat!” He was not referring to the professor but to the rodent from Johns Hopkins University—which had not been treated with stem cells from a five-day-old IVF embryo (which was what our politicians had been led to believe) but with germ cells (sperm and egg precursors) from the primitive gonads of a nine-week-old aborted human foetus. In the spirit of “people need a fairy tale”, Trounson had not thought it relevant to tell the politicians where the cells actually came from; it might have spoiled the enchantment. Likewise, since fairy tales are not subject to scientific standards of scholarship, he felt free to lullaby the Senate that this dubious rat experiment had been published in Nature when in fact it had been rejected by that journal.
The spell finally broke when the Australian passed on a rebuke from the rat’s owner, who was displeased at his pet being paraded under false pretences:
Douglas Kerr, of the Johns Hopkins Institute in Baltimore, said all his research used germ cells from older fetuses and not the cells involved in the Australian legislation. Although a supporter of embryonic stem-cell research, Dr Kerr also said it was “not accurate” to cite his research because it was not approved for publication.
Shortly afterwards I attended a bioethics conference at Johns Hopkins, hoping to pay my respects to Kerr’s rat and shake its poor paralysed paw. I e-mailed David Prentice, who was to speak at the conference: “We should put the idea of a monument to That Rat to the Johns Hopkins Board. I envisage a sculpture that will actually move its hindquarters when you put counterfeit coins in the slot.”
Nearly a decade later, what has become of these embryonic fairy tales? Are we perhaps, at last, to find the stem cell pot at the end of the rainbow with the recent announcements of “embryonic stem cell treatments” in the USA? Is this the “biological gold” that one Australian science reporter drooled over, or just more fool’s gold?
Reality check on embryos
The first question to ask whenever there is talk of embryonic stem cell treatments is this: Why not just use iPSCs, since they are functionally identical, and have the great advantage of being a genetic match to the patient? The second question to ask is: Why take the risk of tumour formation (a danger inherent in both ESCs and iPSCs) if you can just use your own adult stem cells and get both advantages—the lack of tumour risk and a perfect genetic match?
Tumour formation is the greatest impediment to pluripotent cell therapies; even more serious than the problem of immune rejection. No ESC (whether from IVF or from cloning) and no iPSC (since they are the same as ESCs) can ever be put into a human being, because they form teratoma tumours in animals. As the ISSCR itself states: “Embryonic stem cells themselves cannot directly be used for therapies as they would likely cause tumors.” The same does not apply to adult stem cells (ASCs). Tumour risk is the great distinguishing feature between ESCs and our safe, predictable ASCs which have been used directly in many thousands of patients without causing teratoma tumours.
The only way, then, that ESCs or iPSCs can be used in human treatment is first to mature them into more stable cells that are less likely to turn into tumours and injure the patient. The only half-safe ESC is one that is no longer an ESC. This is the method proposed in the two ESC-based trials in the USA.
Geron Corp’s trial in spinal injury uses ESCs from IVF embryos as a source to cultivate more mature nerve stem cells for transplant. This is not (contrary to media hype) a “treatment” but a phase-one safety trial to see if tumours occur; there is still a concern that the “matured” cells in this trial may revert to ESC status and cause a teratoma. Further, because the IVF embryos are genetically foreign, the patients require immune-suppressing drugs to prevent rejection. The same problems apply to the other proposed trial by US firm Advanced Cell Technology, using ESCs to generate retinal cells for use in treating macular degeneration.
Both trials invite the usual two questions. First, why mess with embryos when you can use iPSCs? In macular degeneration, the University of Wisconsin has already used iPSCs to grow human retinal cells and a team at University College London has successfully repaired retinal damage in rats using iPSCs. Second, why use these dangerous pluripotent stem cells at all when you can use safe ASCs? The University of Nebraska has already generated retinal cells using our own ASCs and several teams of scientists have already published trials using a patient’s own ASCs in spinal injury, with no need for immune drugs and no tumours formed.
Cloning obviously plays no part in any of these ESC-based trials, and smart private money will realise that ESC-based treatments make little sense when we can so readily use iPSCs. ASCs and iPSCs are the future of stem cell science, with cloning and embryo experimentation dying a lingering and unlamented death.
Predictably, then, it is ASC and iPSC science that needs to be denigrated by scientists who refuse to go gentle into cloning’s good night, who still demand a licence to research whatever they find interesting—no matter how marginal or contentious.
In the iPSC field, which is the most direct threat to cloning, the two lines of attack by such scientists are that the reprogramming process introduces cancer-causing genes; and that iPSCs are not sufficiently similar to ESCs to be considered an adequate alternative.
The cancer risk was a passing concern with Yamanaka’s original method, which used viral vectors to insert potentially cancer-causing genes. But within months, several scientists had created iPSCs without any viral integration. It is no longer an issue.
As to the claim that iPSCs are not sufficiently similar to the ESCs one might get from cloning, and therefore we should keep trying to clone: pioneering iPSC scientist James Thomson stated that ESCs and iPSCs are indeed equivalent. Another study in 2008 found that in all the aspects studied, “human iPSCs are indistinguishable from human embryonic stem cells”. Obviously, as recent studies show, there are going to be subtle epigenetic or genetic differences detectable between pluripotent cells generated in different ways, but the real question is of functional “real-world” difference between iPSCs and ESCs—and these are not found to be significant. Anything an ESC can do an iPSC can do—but only the iPSC matches the patient.
The Legislative Review acknowledged as much:
there are subtle epigenetic modifications … But functionally (from limited tests to date), optimal iPS cells carry the same potential as ES cells for tissue-specific differentiation in vitro, the ultimate goal of therapeutic cloning.
End of argument? Cloning is now clearly superseded by iPSC? As if startled by the implications of this acknowledgment, the majority on the Review Committee quickly reasserted the morally-neutered position: that we should just research everything, both iPSC and SCNT/cloning, and see what might turn up.
The moral philosopher on the Committee, Rev. Kevin McGovern, Director of the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics, pointed to the majority position’s lack of proportion between the shrivelled residual claims for cloning and the once-unthinkable act of creating human embryos solely for destruction:
It is not clear why SCNT-derived lines would be more useful than iPSC lines. Beyond that, there is only the possibility of what “might” be learnt if research into SCNT continues. The proposed benefits of SCNT research therefore seem not entirely convincing, sometimes rather small, and largely theoretical. On the other hand, SCNT involves the most profound of ethical concerns. It is the creation of human life which will be used in research and then destroyed.
McGovern’s argument, not surprisingly, did not prevail.
The 2011 review: clinging to cloning
The two dominant figures on the five-person Legislative Review Committee into our laws on embryo experimentation were arguably the nation’s most influential advocates for cloning. The fact that there was no prominent critic appointed to provide a public perception of impartiality is the fault of the responsible minister, the Hon. Mark Butler.
Law professor Loane Skene was put in the peculiar position of, in effect, reviewing her own handiwork—since the cloning legislation of 2006 was almost verbatim the recommendations of the Lockhart Review of which she was acting Chair. Her ongoing advocacy for embryo experimentation was evident as recently as October 2010 in a “for and against” publication I shared with her.
Professor Ian Frazer was “Australian of the Year” at the time of the cloning legislation in 2006, and his influential lobbying of senators, described earlier, may have determined the knife-edge outcome. His media statements leading up to the cloning vote that year included describing ESCs as “basically a repair kit for the human body”, and claiming that this research has “the capacity to solve very many of the major diseases of mankind: brain disease, heart disease, diabetes for example”. There was no other scientist on the Committee to provide critical balance. The other members were the ethicist McGovern, academic and midwife Dr Faye Thompson, and the Chairman, retired Federal Court judge the Hon. Peter Heerey.
Despite the predictable outcome of this review, the majority statement defending the status quo sounds almost apologetic, so deflated is the SCNT/cloning position compared to the puff and hype of 2006:
Recommendation 3: (by majority) The provisions in the current legislation regarding SCNT should not be amended.
However, in reaching this recommendation, the Review Committee notes the lack of progress in SCNT research in animals and humans. The Review Committee believes that this must impact on the Licensing Committee’s interpretation of its statutory obligation, when it is considering any future application for a licence to undertake research involving SCNT, to take into account “the likelihood of significant advance in knowledge or improvement in technologies … which could not reasonably be achieved by other means”.
With the advent of Yamanaka’s iPSC method, stem cell science now has its “other means”. This majority recommendation may serve to keep the stain of cloning on our statutes a while longer, but the science itself is in terminal decline. The powerful dissenting statement by Rev. McGovern—whose concerns were shared, we are told, by Dr Faye Thompson—provides a fitting obituary for human cloning in Australia:
In 2006, SCNT seemed the only way to seek the benefits of regenerative medicine. With the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, this is no longer the case. It is hard to see what SCNT now contributes to the progress of regenerative medicine. What would be lost if Australia’s regulatory regime permitted the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from excess embryos along with research with adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, but did not permit SCNT?
What would be lost is scientific and political “face” by those who invested so much reputation in the campaign for cloning back in 2006.
What would be gained is a reassertion that science should only be done if it does not diminish our humanity; a redirection of scarce resources to genuinely promising research; and recognition that we can get the good things of stem cell science without the wanton corruption of cloning.
Dr David van Gend is a general practitioner and university lecturer in Toowoomba, and National Director of Australians for Ethical Stem Cell Research, www.cloning.org.au.