COMMENTARY: Therapeutic Cloning Is Good for America


Shirley Tilghman, Ph.D.
Molecular Biologist and President of Princeton University
David Baltimore, Ph.D.
Nobel Laureate, Biologist, and President of Caltech
Published as an Editorial in the Wall Street Journal

February 26, 2003; Congress will soon vote on whether to ban therapeutic cloning, known to scientists as nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells. Its decision will have a major impact on the nation's position as a world leader in scientific research. A ban would both deny us the fruits of a very promising technology and have a chilling effect on medical research. As with other powerful technologies that carry risks, what is called for is a regulatory framework, not a legal ban.

America's research enterprise has evolved as a flexible partnership between government, universities and industry. The government not only funds research directly, but by putting emphasis on basic research at universities, it has also fostered a research culture that cherishes innovation. This gave us a critical advantage during the Cold War and remains vital to our leadership in science.

The development of technologies that have made cloning possible has forced us -- scientists, policy makers, citizens -- to grapple with issues we have never had to confront before. Fortunately, there is almost universal agreement that one form of cloning -- that of human beings -- is so unsafe and, to some, morally repugnant that it should be banned. But it would be unfortunate if this ban were extended to nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells. Here, a nucleus from an adult cell is placed in an unfertilized egg without a nucleus, and the reconstituted cell is allowed to divide multiple times to produce stem cells. This has enormous potential for generating treatments for incurable diseases. Deriving stem cells in this way allows the replacement of diseased tissues with healthy ones that should not be rejected by the body as foreign.

A broad ban would stifle innovation in a key area of biomedical research. Scientists would have to leave the U.S. or switch to other fields. At a time when foreign pharmaceutical companies are moving their research units to the U.S. because of our support for unfettered research, a ban on nuclear transplantation to derive stem cells will cause them to think twice.

We believe that Congress should take an approach that is more consistent with the research policies that have been in place for half a century. The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that cloning procedures are currently not safe for humans and that no responsible scientists or physicians are likely to undertake to clone a human. We oppose reproductive cloning and support a ban on that practice. We also recognize that therapeutic cloning carries risks, a major risk being that an unscrupulous investigator would use it as a cover for reproductive cloning. We therefore believe that it should go forward in a controlled environment. We need safeguards, not a ban. It pays to remember that 25 years ago, recombinant DNA technology was as controversial as nuclear-transfer technology is today. There were calls for an outright ban.

Yet in the end, Congress and the administration worked with scientists to put in place a regulatory regime for recombinant DNA technology that protected against abuses while allowing society to benefit. The result: a harvest of knowledge, the creation of a new industry -- biotechnology -- in which the U.S. is pre-eminent, and new medicines of unprecedented power.

The outlines of a regulatory framework are already emerging as Congress prepares to address cloning. FDA regulation of biologics and tissue transplantation could be expanded to create an oversight process that would approve and monitor every scientific effort for producing stem cells. Misuse could be made indictable under laws prohibiting attempts to clone a person. The U.K. has successfully regulated nuclear transplantation for the making of matched stem cells, and we could certainly do so as well.

American researchers have made invaluable contributions to the nation's security, the economy, and the well-being of people around the globe. A process that regulates, but allows, therapeutic cloning is the best way to ensure that American science will continue to make such contributions and will keep American scientists in their leadership position.


Don't Create Embryos Merely for Research


Kristin Hansen,
Family Research Council
Washington, D.C.
Letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal

March 11, 2003; As a graduate of Princeton University, I was profoundly disappointed to see Princeton's President Shirley Tilghman call for the cloning of human beings ("Therapeutic Cloning Is Good for America,"Editorial Page, February 26th). I admire her leadership in advocating for cutting-edge scientific research, however she calls for the wrong means to that end. With two siblings who suffer from Juvenile Diabetes, I too have a profound interest in seeing that promising research be advanced, but such research requires ethical guidelines to protect humans.

Ms. Tilghman falls into the trap of many cloning enthusiasts by obfuscating the language. While she opposes reproductive cloning, she promotes "nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells," a process that actually reproduces a living human embryo. It is in fact, the textbook definition of cloning. Furthermore, to depersonalize the embryo, Ms. Tilghman calls it a "reconstituted cell," which begins to divide and from which stem cells can be abstracted. No mention that by doing so, the living human embryo must be destroyed. There is nothing therapeutic about that.

Instead of joining with President Bush, his Bioethics Council, Congress, and many leading nations, Ms. Tilghman co-authors her piece with David Baltimore . A Nobel Laureate, Dr. Baltimore has sounded dangerously like a eugenicist. When asked why he opposes bringing human clones to birth, he has said he doesn't want more disabled people in the world. The positions of Ms. Tilghman and her colleague fall way outside the American mainstream. Whether liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, pro-life or pro-choice, can we not all agree that human beings must not be created for the sole purpose of research?

Ms. Tilghman should instead promote adult stem-cell research and other avenues that have shown actual promise in producing cures. She must continue to advocate that the U.S. be a world leader in research not only scientifically, but ethically. With leaders and elected bodies in France, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Spain, Australia, and the European Parliament having already taken strong positions against all human cloning, we must not hinder the world-wide effort to prevent human beings from being turned into commodities for profit.


When Does Personhood Begin Or
I'm Sorry, Do You Speak English?


L. Stephen Coles, M.D., Ph.D.
Department of Surgery
UCLA Geffen School of Medicine
Gerontology Research Group
Los Angeles, California

We seem to have an extraordinary accusation being made here that Prof. Baltimore has done something unethical, like maybe he was caught embezzling millions of dollars from CalTech, God forbid. Not really. But at least if you accuse a Nobel Prize-Winner of being unethical, you ought to provide some evidence for your charges. Perhaps he believes something unethical that others don't. Not really. The views expressed in the first Editorial above are shared by many many scientists. It appears that Ms. Hansen, representing the Family Research Council, is not just anti-Baltimore, she's opposed to the scientific enterprise itself. In the spirit of Socrates, Galileo, and Darwin, a defense must be mounted. Yet Ms. Hansen's argument is so incoherent as to be nearly incomprehensible. As briefly as I can make it, here is my counter argument...

There is a presupposition in one of the sentences in the letter above that I assert is in the same equivalence class as "2 plus 2 equals 5." The sentence begins, "Furthermore, to depersonalize the embryo, Ms. Tilghman..." and already there is such a big problem here that one cannot not read further without gasping for breath. The thinking underlying the concept that an embryo is a person is so bizarre that one has to ask whether Ms. Hansen is a native speaker of English and not merely a representative of a presumably responsible organization (after taking a look at their website draped in a patriotic American flag, I had to wonder about that too, but that's the subject of yet another debate). Yet she intimates that she graduated from Princeton University, so she must be able to speak English. Right? Prof. Noam Chomsky, creator of the linguistic concept of Transformational Grammar, in his desire to prove the point that there are plenty of English sentences for which there would be no semantic counterpart in the real world, but yet could be syntactically correct, provided us with the amusing example...

"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."*

There is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence. [Linguists place an asterisk after an example sentence to remind the reader that this sentence is somehow anomalous.] What's wrong with this sentence is that it makes no sense, even allowing for poetic license. And so it is with Ms. Hansen's sentence about "depersonalizing an embryo."

The inference is that depersonalizing a [preimplantation] embryo is somehow bad or worse immoral. So I guess the underlying presupposition is that "a preimplantation embryo is a person" (sic). But, by definition, a preimplantation embryo is not a person. NOT a person. [Being a "person" requires consciousness which requires the presence of a nervous system as an absolute prerequisite, which a preimplantation embryo obviously doesn't have. Even Aristotle, the first real biologist in Western Civilization, correctly made this observation back in 330 B.C.] What part of the word "NOT" in "not a person" don't you understand, Ms. Hansen? Is it the "N"? Is it the "O"? Is it the "T"? I rather suspect that Ms. Hansen knows the alphabet. I rather suspect that she knows what the word "NOT" means. I rather suspect that giving her instruction in such words would be a silly waste of time. I rather suspect that she would assert that "any fertilized human egg is a person, not 'not a person'." Hello! How can that be? A fertilized human egg is a potential person, not a person. This is true in the same sense that a dead person is no longer a person but a dead body. It has to do with time. It doesn't mean that a dead body doesn't deserve respect. But one does not extend to the dead body the "rights and privileges" of personhood. It's no longer a person. Got it? Not a person.

So if we have a mistake here, what kind of mistake is it? For the sake of this argument, we need to agree upon a taxonomy of mistakes. We can distinguish at least four types of errors: The first two are inadvertent, while the last two are clearly intentional. The third error is relatively harmless, while the last type is potentially dangerous for our society.

Let's call Type I errors, one-time, inadvertent mistakes made, like typos, that are easily corrected. The person who made the error really knew better.

Let's call Type II errors, systematic, unintentional mistakes innocently made many times by one person. However, if, when corrected for the first time, the maker agrees to avoid this error in the future and agrees to correct any of these errors that can be redacted easily, then no harm done.

Let's call Type III errors, systematic errors that the maker refuses to correct even when confronted with his or her error by a credentialed teacher or an acknowledged authoritative source. Examples include the systematic mispronunciation of the word "nuclear" by various Presidents (from both parties). When told of this error, an excuse for perseveration in the mistake was that it was a "regionalism" and therefore "correct." Another example would be my innocently telling a British citizen that they had mistyped the word "colour" several times in an article. They might politely counter that this was not an error at all, but that we Americans were in error. We have always done it this way; we do it this way now; and we will continue to do it this way in the future; in fact, it's spelled that way in our Oxford English Dictionary, which is the definitive standard for the English language. Indeed, we not only spell colour that way on purpose, we spell honour, favour, behaviour, and a variety of other "...our" words that way, in case you didn't know, because that's the way we're supposed to spell them and we're taught to spell them that way by our own English teachers. Furthermore, they're right to teach it that way. We all agree amongst ourselves. So, you, if you have a problem, get over it.

Here are some more examples: The game of Kriegspiel, played with two chess boards and a partition between them has a type of three-part logic associated with the fact that you can't see your opponent's board (therefore, there must be a Referee in addition to the standard two adversaries). As a player, one should, nevertheless, have a correct model of what's going on on one's opponent's board, assuming you're paying attention. So, by definition, there are three types of moves called by the Referee: "Yes," "No," and "Hell No (Impossible)," the latter being an illegal mistake that one was attempting to make based on a bad assumption about the position of the opponents board; one should have known better. "Hell No" is a Type III error. Other examples might be joining the Flat Earth Society or becoming a strict vegetarian surrounded by an omnivorous, meat-loving majority.

Finally, let's call Type IV errors, errors where the perpetrators, claiming themselves to be correct, self-righteously seek to obliterate all those who point out that they may be making any sort of error, frequently, on the grounds that the error detectors are immoral. This is sometimes called Proof by intimidation. Ultimately, for Type IV errors, disputes about incorrect belief systems need to be criminalized with a system of punishments to prevent their expression in a civil society. Examples might be forming a renamed Flat Earth Society as "Americans for an Accurate Geography" with a patriotic American flag-waving website, establishing a fund-raising subcommittee to provide resources to further advance their agenda recruiting evangelists to extend their agenda to a broader constituency, lobbying for legislation that would criminalize their opponents behavior, like NASA Missions, against the possibility that it would tend to discredit their agenda, and so on. Assuming that NASA Missions had value for some political constituents, lobbying against the federal NASA budget on the grounds that there were more pressing demands on our taxable resources would allow the group to maintain their image of respectability while surreptitiously concealing their ulterior motives. Another example would be a hypothetical "Vegetarians for America" who lobbied to criminalize meat eating. There are thousands of obscure organizations in this country with their own websites (like PETA and the National Rifle Association ("Only from my cold, dead hands [will you take away my gun]," said Charlton Heston as he held his honorary rifle up high above his head at a recent NRA meeting in Florida) that do nothing illegal short of advocating the overthrow of our government.

Following the taxonomy above, Ms. Hansen has committed a Type IV error.

So maybe our groups disagree about what it means to be a person --- a simple disagreement about definitions. Could we agree to disagree? No, we can't. It's not that simple. We are real adversaries in principle, since our respective lobbies are deliberately working at cross purposes. This is the sort of thing that nations routinely fought wars over or, at one time, individuals fought duels-to-the-death over (at the beginning of our nation's history). Dueling is no longer fashionable as a way to resolve disputes, now that we have lawyers (due, I guess, to the incredible accuracy of modern weapons, so there's no opportunity left to skill).

So can't we simply go on our separate ways as two philosophers who passionately disagree about "how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?" No, we can't. This is not a matter of abstractions but of practical consequences in the real world.

Take the example of exploiting a jurisdictional dispute between adjacent states about the age at which a person is considered mature enough to legally drink alcohol. Some states say 18, others say 21. What if a teenager lived along the border? Couldn't he willingly cross the state line to buy a drink and thereby legally circumvent the intent of the law in his home state?

This is not simply a matter of Ms. Hansen impugning the integrity of two world-famous biologists or being anti-science with no further consequences for the scientific enterprise. She represents a fanatical religious fundamentalist attitude that pervades this country, particularly in the US House of Representatives that has already voted twice to criminalize (10 years in prison and a $1 million fine) all forms of human cloning (both reproductive and therapeutic equally). The Senate, by the way, has yet to articulate its own position, while President Bush has already indicated his willingness to sign such a bill into law as soon as it were passed by the Senate and reconciled in Committee. He has used the prestige of the White House to conduct public meetings there to further his staff's agenda regarding these proposed laws. Moreover, we should indicate that there are highly-educated individuals, even with degrees in Medicine, who share this perverse point of view. See the comments of Dr. William Hurlbut, M.D., (Stanford University Medical School; 1974), a member of the President's Council on Bioethics and a consulting professor in Stanford's Program in Human Biology: "It's important to acknowledge that the developing cells are 'an early stage of a human life in progress,' with a drive in the direction of the full development of a distinct individual human person." Can you see how Hurlbut has deliberately muddied the water by introducing the word "person" incorrectly? The clump of 256 cells of a human blastocyst is not a person. The Dean of the Stanford Medical School, Dr. Philip Pizzo, M.D., a pediatric oncologist and Prof. Irving Weissman, M.D., Professor of Pathology and Cancer Biology, Chairman of the Committee of the National Academy of Sciences established to study these issues, and Director of the newly- established Stanford Cancer/Stem-Cell Institute with an anonymous $12 million grant both take the opposite point of view that embryonic stem-cell research should not be banned at the risk of more lives being lost. "Serious disease is a fight against time. The longer we wait, the more persons will die of what might otherwise be preventable disease."

To further illustrate the scope of the opposition, here are two websites from the Christian Pro-Life Right Wing: the Christian Defense Coalition and the National Clergy Council. A recent article by Debra Rosenberg entitled "The War Over Fetal Rights: The politics of the womb are becoming ever more personal and complex. The Peterson murder case, changing state laws and startling new science are causing many Americans to rethink long-held beliefs," Newsweek Cover story (June 9, 2003) has a lot more data about our opposition.

Imagine, for a moment, that Ms. Hensen were a judge who sat above a law-enforcement agency that could carry out legal punishments for violations of her laws. Imagine further that, if she could, she would make it not just unethical to destroy embryos but illegal as well.

Allow the proposition X to be

"Intentionally destroy a human preimplantation embryo
(for the purpose of harvesting its therapeutic potential)."

Then she would refer to a hypothetical law against X if I were brought before her, and assuming that I confessed to having done X. She would then administer the maximum punishment for committing the crime of X to the fullest extent of the law, as I would not be a contrite law-breaker who admitted the error of his ways and then pleaded with the Court to give me leniency (mercy). I would be labeled as a sociopathic repeat-offender of the following sort:

I admit that I did X, and unfortunately for me, I appears that I was caught having done X;
But I am proud to say that I enjoyed doing X while I was doing it;
Despite your ostensible law, I believe I have an inherent right to do X;
Moreover, I believe that I have a duty to do X;
I have no remorse about ever having done X;
The acid test: Given the same circumstances, I would not hesitate to do X again;
If not forcibly prevented from doing X, I will certainly do X again, at my earliest convenient opportunity;
If I am temporarily prevented from doing X, such as being incarcerated against my will, I will return to doing X at the next available opportunity.
In other words, given the opportunity, I would be an inveterate X-doer, regardless of your so- called law prohibiting X;
I believe that you have no jurisdiction to stop me or anyone from doing X on the grounds that it simply would be unconstitutional to create such a law to prohibit X;
Subsequently, I will do my utmost to prevent you, personally, and all your co-conspirators, from prohibiting me or anyone else from performing X (in the sense of a class action suit);
I guess that, ultimately, I would have to secede (or secretly escape) from your jurisdiction if you persisted in issuing a warrant for my arrest and I were on bail, or gladly accept any excommunication/deportation/exile as a punishment, so that I could conduct my agenda in a more congenial legalized setting.
And if these alternatives became forcibly unavailable, I would have to declare war on you and your jurisdiction, since obviously both of us cannot live on the same planet holding such diametrically-opposed positions regarding X.

This almost sounds like the former Taliban leadership in Afghanistan declaring war on the Coalition Forces while being free to topple the statues of the Two Standing Buddhas. They obviously did not consider this to be a crime against humanity but, to the contrary, a religious duty! If they had the capacity to do so, they would intend to kill all infidels (translation: all Westerners and our progeny). Finally, as soon as they could, they would eliminate any recorded evidence that our ancestors ever existed, i.e., rewrite their history books so as to eliminate any reference to what we are fond of calling "Western Civilization," as soon as we were extinguished from the planet. Given the exclusive choice of dropping the planet Earth into the Sun or not carrying out their political/religious agenda, they would gladly chose the former. Spoken as a true fanatic. But, on the other hand, the Taliban never spoke English, so maybe they have somewhat of an excuse.

By the way, my own opinion regarding the moral value of a preimplantation embryo would not be to place it in the same equivalence class as "hair cuttings" or "fingernail clippings" to be casually tossed in the trash. These tissues should be exploited for human use, and if they could not be so used, but had to be disposed of, they should be treated in the same manner as all human tissue derived from donated organs are treated today that could not be used within a certain interval of time with appropriate dignity and respect. But organs are not persons. They are organs. In a similar manner, the "Products of Conception" that result from a therapeutic abortion are treated with proper respect before being disposed of (incinerated). Every hospital has rules that apply to the appropriate disposal of human tissues. Systematically violating these rules could cause such an institution to lose its operating licence as granted by the proper local, state, and federal authorities.

Righteous indignation about the definition of a person (when does personhood begin anyway? It is a fuzzy set in the sense of Prof. L. A. Zadeh, U.C. Berkeley), can certainly lead to all kinds of ambiguity and moral confusion. For the record, my own personal view of the preimplantation embryo is that it is an exquisite "pharmaceutical factory" that will allow us to derive all kinds of commercially-valuable molecules in the future. As medical scientists, we have a right and a duty to investigate this factory. I eagerly anticipate that we will soon be able to harvest the chemical messengers contained therein.

The notion that someone else could be looking over my shoulder telling me that such science is "morally reprehensible" I find incomprehensible. I hope I will live to see the day and even participate in the success of this scientific enterprise in my own life time. Is that too much to ask, Ms. Hansen? You, of course, and your children can opt out if you wish. Sorry, but not every one should be forced to undertake a treatment, especially one that they find unethical. But destroying a human pre-embryo is not the ethical equivalent of the premeditated, intentional killing of a human person (legally termed one count of "murder in-the-first-degree"), for which the penalty could be a death sentence in many states and other countries.

I'm sorry that somewhere along the way you seem to have forgotten how to speak English. A preimplantation embryo is not a person. NOT a person. NOT A PERSON. NOT A PERSON. Hello, Are you there? Can you hear me now?