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What is Human Cloning?

In the public policy debate on human cloning, groups that support the cloning of human embryos for destructive research have raised questions as to what procedures are properly called human cloning. Even if one uses only definitions proposed by such groups, however, it is clear that only one bill pending in Congress qualifies as a ban on any kind of human cloning.

1. How is "cloning" defined by those who wish to allow cloning of embryos for research?

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) defines "clone" and "cloning" as follows:
"Clone - 1) An exact genetic replica of a DNA molecule, cell, tissue, organ, or entire plant or animal. 2) An organism that has the same nuclear genome as another organism.
"Cloning - The production of a clone."

- NAS, Scientific and Medical Aspects of Human Reproductive Cloning (National Academy Press 2002), page E-4

Similarly, an original co-sponsor of the Specter/Harkin cloning bill (S. 1893), designed to allow human embryo cloning for research purposes, says:
"(T)he scientific term ‘cloning' is defined as the creation of an exact genetic copy of an existing molecule, cell or organism."

- Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), letter to constituent, January 24, 2002

By these definitions, cloning has occurred as soon as a new organism is created that genetically copies an existing organism. To be a clone one need not be of identical age or identical stage of development compared to the original organism, but only a new organism of identical genetic makeup. To ban cloning is to ban such creation of a new genetically identical organism.

2. Is the new embryo created by somatic cell nuclear transfer an "organism"?

Since 1996, Congress has defined the early human embryo outside the womb as an "organism... that is derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning, or any other means from one or more human gametes or human diploid cells." Sec. 510 (b) of P.L. 107-116 (Labor/HHS/Education appropriations act for FY 2002).

This reflects a consensus even among government advisory boards which favor destructive embryo research. See the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC):
"Embryo - The developing organism from the time of fertilization until significant differentiation has occurred, when the organism becomes known as a fetus." (Emphasis added)

- NBAC, Cloning Human Beings (Rockville, MD: June 1997), Vol. I, page A-2

Here is the National Institutes of Health definition:
"Embryo - In humans, the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation..."

- Stem Cells: Scientific Progress and Future Research Directions (NIH, June 2001), page F-3

Congress specifically includes the cloned human organism under its definition of an embryo. While some outside groups speak of the embryo "from the time of fertilization," they also recognize that the new organism created by cloning qualifies as an embryo:
"The Commission began its discussions fully recognizing that any effort in humans to transfer a somatic cell nucleus into an enucleated egg involves the creation of an embryo, with the apparent potential to be implanted in utero and developed to term."

- NBAC, Cloning Human Beings, op. cit., p. 3 (emphasis added)

The view of ethicists, stem cell researchers and the Clinton administration is also clear:
In December 1998 testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Labor/HHS, witnesses from all sides of the embryonic stem cell debate (including an official of the Catholic bishops' conference and prominent embryonic stem cell researchers) agreed that an embryonic stem cell is not an embryo, because a human embryo is an organism of the human species and an embryonic stem cell is not. This key distinction was the basis for the HHS general counsel's 1999 legal opinion that the Clinton administration could legally fund research on stem cells from embryos, because stem cells are themselves not "organisms" and therefore not embryos. The Rabb memo cited Congress's definition of "embryo," and the December 1998 hearing, to support its case (Harriet S. Rabb, Memorandum to NIH Director Harold Varmus on "Federal Funding for Research Involving Human Pluripotent Stem Cells," Jan. 15, 1999, pp. 2-4).

3. Is the creation of a human embryo by cloning accurately called "human cloning"?

An affirmative answer to this question is demanded by the facts above: If the new organism created by cloning is a human organism (i.e., a human embryo), this is human cloning.

If there is any remaining doubt, we need only review the NAS's own definition of "embryo":

"Embryo- ...In medical terms, embryo usually refers to the developing human from fertilization (the zygote stage) until the end of the eighth week of gestation..." - NAS, op. cit., p. E-5.

The Brownback/Landrieu Human Cloning Prohibition Act, S. 245, conforms to this accurate definition. It is the only pending bill that bans human cloning.

In fact there is no human cloning that does not proceed by creating an early human embryo. As cloning proponent Professor Lee Silver of Princeton University has written: "Scientists cannot make full-grown adult copies of any animal, let alone humans... Real biological cloning can only take place at the level of the cell..." - Lee Silver, Remaking Eden (Avon Books 1997), p. 124.

4. Then what is banned by the Hatch/Feinstein/Specter bill (S. 303)?

This bill only bans transfer of an already-cloned human embryo into a uterus (or the "functional equivalent" of a uterus, a phrase with no clear meaning). Such transfer is a change of location – it does not create a new developing human, or make the embryo any more genetically identical to a previously existing individual than it was before, or change its status as an organism of the human species.

Embryo transfer is a well-known procedure, distinct from the nuclear transfer procedure used to do cloning. It is an essential part of reproduction by in vitro fertilization, and is exactly the same whether the embryo was created by fertilization or cloning. See NBAC's definition:
"Embryo transfer - the introduction of a preimplantation embryo into the uterus for growth and development." - NBAC, op. cit., p. A-2.

This is the procedure banned by the Hatch/Feinstein/Specter bill. It bans "embryo transfer" when a cloned embryo is involved.

This bill raises serious legal questions about the government's authority to regulate the kind of child a woman may bear in her womb. It also raises practical problems -- at the stage of development where embryo transfer might be attempted, there is no reliable way to distinguish a cloned embryo from a fertilized one. Most importantly, however, this procedure is simply not cloning. It does not create an organism, but changes the location of an organism already created.

5. The NAS report on cloning uses several vague and incompatible definitions of "reproductive cloning."

For policy reasons the NAS wants to describe as "cloning" only the transfer of a cloned embryo to a womb (for which it offers the term "reproductive cloning"). But it offers no justification for contradicting its own glossary's definition of cloning. In fact the NAS report at various points offers three different meanings for "reproductive cloning" – these contradict each other, and they all contradict the scientific definition in the report's own glossary.

The text speaks of "reproductive cloning" as the transfer of a cloned embryo to a uterus (NAS, page 6-6). This contradicts the NAS's own glossary. Elsewhere the text refers to "reproductive cloning" as creating a new "individual," and seems to equate "individual" with a born infant (NAS, page 2-8). At yet another point the text equates "reproductive cloning" with "cloning of adult animals" (NAS, page 1-1). Logically, under these latter definitions, a law that required killing all cloned humans at any time before birth (or at any time before reaching adulthood) could be seen as a "ban on reproductive cloning."

S. 303 bans the transfer of cloned human embryos into environments where they might survive to a later stage. But disrupting the further development of an organism is very different from preventing its creation.

6. Efforts to create euphemisms for what is really human cloning

In the policy debate, euphemisms have been produced to avoid calling human cloning what it is:

a. Embryo cloning for research purposes is merely "nuclear transplantation" or "somatic cell nuclear transfer," as contrasted with "reproductive cloning."

In fact somatic cell nuclear transfer, or nuclear transplantation, are the terms for the cloning procedure itself. This procedure is what efforts at human cloning, whether for experimental or "reproductive" purposes, have in common. Even the NAS report says that "reproductive" cloning "involves a process called nuclear transplantation or somatic cell nuclear transfer" (NAS, p. 1-1).

b. "Nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells" (NAS, p. 2-5)

This makes even less sense. Nuclear transplantation into an egg does not produce stem cells – it produces an embryo, which can then either be placed in a uterus (embryo transfer) or destroyed for research. Some researchers want to use cloning to produce human embryos, then kill the embryos for their stem cells. Proponents of cloning are trying to obscure this fact. If a woman delivered a baby solely to obtain his or her kidney for transplantation into someone else, would we say she had given birth to a kidney?

c. "Therapeutic cloning"

This term is already being discarded by researchers, since the idea that anything "therapeutic" may come from this procedure is speculative at best. This is another euphemism for experimental cloning in which embryos are created to be destroyed. There is, of course, nothing "therapeutic" in the cloning process itself, or in the lethal harm that will be done to the cloned embryo.

d. "DNA-regenerative medicine"

This strange hybrid phrase was first used at a February 5, 2002 Senate hearing on cloning. It makes the least sense of all. To be sure, there is such a thing as the cloning of DNA strands, a standard biological practice that does not produce an embryo and is not banned by any pending bill. There is also an entire field known as regenerative medicine, which chiefly uses adult stem cells and other non-embryonic tissues. Neither of these has much relevance to human cloning.

In short: Relying on definitions provided by the proponents of human cloning for research purposes, we can see that the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer to make human embryos (for whatever purpose) is the only procedure under debate that is accurately called human cloning. Members of Congress who wish to ban other activities should call them by their scientifically accepted names – not hijack the clear and well-defined term "cloning" for other purposes.

Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 4th Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20017-1194 (202) 541-3070




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved