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Lack of coherent cloning policies reflects polarized debate, limited understanding, study says


New report details public opinion and fast-changing science landscape

The confusing welter of state laws regarding human cloning for reproductive purposes and for research uses reflects a national political impasse on regulating cloning, according to a new report by The Genetics & Public Policy Center, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins University. This lack of a national consensus comes at a time when rapid advances in cloning technology make crafting broader public policy increasingly urgent, the report notes. "While human cloning technology is still in its infancy, the science is outpacing the public’s understanding and the formulation of coherent public policy," it warns.

"Scientists have cloned cows, cats, and human embryos," says Kathy Hudson, director of the Center. "Meanwhile, the public and policymakers have reached a political impasse – we’re embroiled in a complex and divisive ethical and policy debate that too often is rushed and emotionally charged. We hope this report will contribute to public understanding and to the development of sound science policy."

The Center’s report, "Cloning: A Policy Analysis" is the most recent comprehensive analysis of the science of cloning (including stem cell research), the moral and ethical arguments that frame the cloning debate, and rapidly changing policies at the state, federal, and international levels. The report also details new public opinion data that reflect high awareness about cloning in general but limited understanding of its scientific feasibility.

Rapidly Evolving Science Landscape

Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is the technique currently in use to create embryos that are genetically identical to another animal or person, the report explains. Research cloning has been used in the laboratory to derive human stem cells from cloned embryos; their nuclear genome is identical to that of the source of the donated nucleus. Therapeutic cloning refers to the potential use of stem cells from cloned embryos to treat degenerative diseases through the transplantation of genetically matched cells or tissues; although this has not to anyone’s knowledge yet been successfully attempted in humans. Reproductive cloning has been demonstrated in animals, Dolly the sheep in 1996 being the most publicized example. Claims of human reproductive cloning are made periodically but none have been substantiated, the report notes.

Studies have shown that many cloned animals die in utero or soon after birth, or survive with severe birth defects. In fact, few cloning attempts are successful. Abnormalities are wide-ranging and can include heart, liver, kidney, immune system, and brain defects. Using a nucleus from an adult cell requires it to be "reprogrammed" into behaving like the nucleus of a very early embryo, meaning genes that were turned on in the adult need to be turned off and genes that are required for embryonic development need to be turned on. Currently, it is not clear to what extent reprogramming errors lead to SCNT failure; more animal research will be needed to better understand these and similar cloning problems, the report says.

Cloned non-human primate embryos have been obtained using SCNT, the report notes, but so far no pregnancy has been reported. Cloned primate embryos have exhibited misaligned chromosomes and the absence of structures necessary for cell division, but some scientists argue that these are technical barriers that can be overcome, the report observes.

The report notes that many scientists and patients, among others, support the use of cloning because of its potential to better understand human development and treat disease, and a small minority of the public also would support its use to help couples who otherwise could not to bear genetically related children. At the same time, some fear "a Brave New World-like civilization in which people intentionally are designed for the use and control of those more powerful," it explains. Some oppose cloning because it requires destruction of human embryos, while others view the cloning of a human being as an ill-conceived attempt to usurp Divine authority or second-guess Nature, the report explains.

These divergent views in turn are based on different underlying values, including the view of the moral worth of a human embryo, conceptions of human personhood and human dignity, the importance of human individuality, the imperative to heal the sick, the right to reproductive autonomy, and the proper role of government in socially charged and ethically complex issues, the report points out.

National Gridlock; States Charting New Territory

"These widely disparate concerns, fears, and hopes have created a political impasse at the federal level," it explains; no federal laws have been passed regulating cloning, although Congress has considered numerous bills in every session since 1997. "Congress currently is gridlocked on cloning issues," says the report’s principal analyst, Gail Javitt. "The controversy about human embryo research, on the one hand, and the specter of human reproductive cloning, on the other, have kept the cloning debate an emotionally charged and highly controversial fixture of the political landscape for the past several years."

However, at the state level -- as well as in other countries -- numerous laws have been passed either banning or promoting certain uses of cloning. These existing regulations, as well as policy statements by many scientific and advocacy organizations, are catalogued in the report.

The report notes that five U.S. states ban all forms of cloning outright, four expressly permit SCNT for research or therapeutic purposes while banning reproductive cloning, and three restrict the use of state funds for research or therapeutic cloning. Several other states have existing laws pertaining to the use of embryos in research that may impact regulation of cloning. By contrast, a few states -- notably California -- have passed laws that actively promote stem cell research. "It’s a real-life example of our federalist system in action -- the states are, literally, serving as the ’laboratories’ of democracy," explains Javitt. "At the same time, lack of federal involvement could leave gaps in oversight."

Diversity Of Public Opinion On Cloning

The report notes that public opinion has been tapped many times by groups either for or against cloning, often with very different outcomes. "Wording really does matter," Hudson says. "You can get a very different answer depending on how you ask the question, what kind of promises you imply about health benefits when you ask the question, or how you phrase the source of the embryonic material to be used." Poll results also can be skewed by recent media coverage or political activities, the report notes.

That’s why, Hudson explains, a recent Gallup poll could show only 38 percent of respondents supportive of cloning embryos specifically for research, while a different recent survey -- when the word "cloning" is not used in survey questions, but the alternative term "somatic-cell nuclear transfer" is used and medical value of the procedure is stressed -- found public support for research cloning at 72 percent.

In the Center’s own 2004 survey looking at a variety of reproductive genetic technologies, Americans opposed human cloning for both reproductive and research uses by margins of more than 3-1, the report explains. The survey, conducted by Knowledge Networks, Inc., also found that most Americans appear to have a very poor understanding of the science surrounding cloning technologies, noting that:

  • Overall, only 56 percent of those surveyed correctly responded yes when asked whether it was "scientifically possible today to produce a cloned embryo." Roughly a third reported they did not know if it was possible, while slightly fewer than 10 percent indicated they believed it was not possible.
  • When asked whether it was "scientifically possible today to produce a cloned human baby," only 18 percent correctly reported that it was not possible, while 38 percent indicated they didn’t know. Slightly more than 45 percent said it was possible to produce a cloned human baby.

Regarding research cloning, the Center’s survey also found that:

  • 76 percent of Americans surveyed did not approve of "scientists working on ways to create a cloned human embryo for research."
  • More adults over age 50 disapproved of scientists working to create a cloned human embryo for research (81 percent) compared to adults aged 18-29 (71 percent)
  • Forty-two percent of religiously unaffiliated respondents approved of scientists working to create a cloned human embryo for research versus only 7 percent of Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christians
  • Approval of research cloning was greater among participants with higher levels of education

On issues related to reproductive cloning, the Center found that:

  • Eighty-eight percent disapproved of "scientists working on ways to create a cloned human baby"
  • Twice as many men as women approved of cloning to create a human baby (16 percent versus fewer than 8 percent). In addition, men also were twice as likely as women to answer yes when asked "if you could clone yourself, would you?"
  • Fewer Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians (4 percent) said they approved of scientists working on ways to clone a human baby compared to other religions and those with no affiliation

Of the minority of respondents who answered yes when asked whether human cloning --whether for research or reproduction -- "should be allowed at all," 85 percent stated that the government should regulate cloning "based on quality and safety," and 54 percent responded that the government should regulate cloning "based on ethics and morality."

The report also concludes that Americans don’t form their opinions about cloning in a vacuum. "American’s opinions about cloning are not firmly held and likely are being influenced by their positions on more familiar issues such as abortion and the value of biomedical research to develop new therapies and treatments for the sick," the report says. "Given this situation, it is not surprising that lawmakers in Washington and in various state legislatures have not been able to reach consensus on laws to regulate cloning, or how cloning ultimately might be used in medicine."

"Cloning: A Policy Analysis" is available on the web site for The Genetics and Public Policy Center, Print copies are available by mail from the letterhead address.

Rick Borchelt | EurekAlert!
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