July 29, 1997

Bioethics Commission Report is "Dolly in Wolf's Clothing"

Recommendations will stimulate - not deter - commercialization of human cloning

The final, 107-page report prepared by the US National Bioethics Advisory Commission on human cloning, accepted by President Clinton on 9 June, sends a clear signal to the biotech industry that it can move full speed ahead to commercialize the cloning of animals, including human beings," says Pat Mooney, Executive Director of RAFI. "The Commission seems to have sidestepped all the tough ethical issues," Mooney continues, "and has reduced the broad moral debate solely to a question of safety for mother and embryo."

While Congress will be asked to make human cloning illegal, RAFI states, the seemingly conservative implications of the move are almost entirely illusory. The Commission is only calling for a legal barrier to impregnating women with cloned embryos - but does not block the cloning of human embryos in test-tubes for research purposes.

Further, the limited embargo would only last for four to five years. "It took 177 tries before the Roslin Institute (the Scottish research centre that "invented" Dolly) was able to bring a healthy clone into the world," Hope Shand, RAFI's research director, adds, "It will take at least five years to advance cloning techniques to the point where any woman or doctor would dare to risk their own bodies or reputations by attempting to bear a cloned baby. A five year ban is no ban at all."

The proposed legislation has a "sunset" clause meaning that it fades from the books within five years. Congress then would have to re-introduce legislation to maintain the ban. "The sun will set on the embargo about the same time that it rises on commercial cloning" Shand warns. The ban will also last just long enough to transfer the moral burden to a new President, perhaps from another party, and to a new Congress. "The Commission is roaring like a lion but acting like a lamb," Mooney argues. What RAFI terms "the placebo ban" calms the public's nerves and gives the biotech industry enough time to let the outcry fade while it prepares to take commercial advantage of the new technology.

Although the Commission recommends that the current ban on federal funding for human embryo research be renewed, it merely suggests that the private sector honor this prohibition -- it does nothing to impede the biotech industry. Laboratory research on human cloning can move full speed ahead during the moratorium. From industry's viewpoint, the only problem with cloning is that Roslin Institute's February announcement caught them off-guard and they couldn't manage the public reaction. Now they have been granted four to five years within which to mollify law-makers and the public.

By focusing on the safety of mothers and infants, the Bioethics Commission has reduced the moral debate over the propriety of cloned human beings to a question of medical mechanics. "If cloning were a new drug, it would have 5 to 7 years of FDA testing ahead before it could be prescribed," Hope Shand says, "Human cloning could get to the marketplace faster than a new drug." The Commission has avoided its moral responsibility to address the full range of ethical issues.

Ducking Patent Claims--Invoking Trade Wars?

The Bioethics Commission has also succeeded in ducking the controversial issue of patent claims on the mammal cloning technology - patent claims which include human cloning. In March, the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva published two patents belonging to the Roslin Institute that grant exclusive control over the cloning technology. The patent claim is not restricted to livestock. It includes all mammals--including humans. Roslin has applied for acceptance of these patents in virtually every country in the world that has a patent office. If cloning is immoral - as most lawmakers are saying - then the patents are immoral too. National patent offices granting the Roslin patents is tantamount to their governments implicitly accepting the cloning of humans - a technology which many countries and cultures deem morally unacceptable. The patents should not be allowed.

Few countries have anticipated the legal and political quandary that could result if the Dolly patents are accepted. The United Kingdom has passed a law banning the cloning of humans. But if the US follows the Bioethics Commission's advice and passes a similar law, and the Dolly patents are accepted in the US and UK, the anti-cloning laws might mean the US and UK will find themselves in violation of their own interpretations of the World Trade Organization's international trade rules under GATT. The bottom line is that the complex and far-reaching implications of human cloning should not rest with trade agreements, the biotech industry or patent offices. This is an issue of profound global importance that must be resolved at the highest levels.

Finally, the Bioethics Commission has failed to address the ethical implications of cloning non-human animals. Even as the Commission sent its report to President Clinton, Nature Genetics announced that Japan's Kirin Brewery Co. is now able to transfer parts of human chromosomes carrying hundreds or even thousands of human genes into rodents in a single procedure. The scientific intent may be to clone the rodents to conduct research on human chromosomes; but there are other, much more troubling possibilities when researchers move large quantities of human DNA between species. Pat Mooney asks, "How many human chromosomes must a rat have before it can join a Bioethics Commission?"

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