What Michael Missed: The Stealth Strategy of Cloning Proponents

Posted: Nov 02, 2006 7:39 AM
What Michael Missed: The Stealth Strategy of Cloning Proponents

When actor Michael J. Fox appeared Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulous,” he reiterated his support for Missouri’s Amendment Two and assured viewers that he shares their opposition to human cloning. Then he made a stunning admission that effectively gutted his endorsement.

Asked to explain how he could square the amendment’s claim to ban cloning with its fine-print promise to enshrine as a constitutional right somatic cell nuclear transfer – the technical term for the cloning process that was used to create Dolly the sheep – Fox said he was “not qualified to speak on the page-to-page content of the initiative. Although I am quite sure that I’ll agree with it in spirit, I don’t know, I – on full disclosure, I haven’t read it, and that’s why I didn’t put myself up for it distinctly.”

It’s too bad that Fox did not do his homework before making his impassioned televised plea to Missouri voters last week. If he had, he might have learned why opposition to this phony cloning ban has energized citizens across the state and inspired them to mount a broad-based grassroots challenge to the $28-million campaign bankrolled by billionaires James and Virginia Stowers of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City.

Reading past the 96-word ballot title and delving into the nearly 2,000 words of fine print, Fox would have discovered that the amendment’s authors bucked the scientific establishment’s commonly accepted definition of human cloning as the process of creating a cloned human embryo and opted instead to define cloning as the implantation of a that embryo into a uterus. In other words, their amendment bans reproductive cloning while making the cloning and killing of human embryos for research a constitutional right.

Amendment backers have justified their semantic sleight of hand by arguing that public fears about cloning have more to do with the prospect of living among human clones than killing them for research. But polls suggest otherwise. Earlier this year, an International Communications Research survey commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 81 percent of respondents said scientists should not be allowed to “use human cloning to create a supply of human embryos to be destroyed in medical research” – roughly the same percentage of Americans that disapproved of reproductive cloning.

Cloning supporters have long understood that the more we know about their research, the more likely we are to reject it. Some, like Missourians Dr. William Danforth and William Neaves, have lobbied their colleagues to stop using such unpopular and transparent terms as “embryonic stem cells” and “therapeutic cloning” and replace them with more obscure references to “early stem cells” and “somatic cell nuclear transfer.” The pair even urged scientists to stop referring to the product of human cloning as a “cloned embryo” and call it a “pre-embryo” instead. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University and chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and Neaves, president and CEO of the Stowers Institute, made their case in a 2005 letter published in Science magazine, by selectively quoting definitions from a medical dictionary and arguing that common-sense language about cloning may “mislead the uninformed” and make nonscientists think of “a living copy of another person.”

Theirs was not the first attempt to define away the moral controversy over cloning. Science published a similar plea in 2002, authored by Dr. Bert Vogelstein, Bruce Alberts, and Dr. Kenneth Shine. In an appeal that explicitly mentioned the specter of a federal cloning ban, they argued that references to therapeutic cloning “should be abandoned” and replaced with “nuclear transplantation” – a more technical term that does not raise the same red flags as cloning. Since scientists are cloning embryos in order to harvest stem cells rather than to make babies, they argued, it is unfair to use the unpopular c-word to describe their work.

Readers of Science were not convinced, if letters to the editor are any indication. As biologist Eli Meyer wrote, “Supporting stem cell research and holding to philosophical distinctions between the rights of human beings from different developmental stages are quite a different thing from arguing that human embryos are not human. Our cause is only weakened by relying on such arguments to support it.”

The editors of Science apparently reached a similar conclusion. Recent issues refer to the cloning of embryos, therapeutic cloning, and “somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), or cloning.” A recent MedLine search of medical science journals found “cloned embryos” mentioned in 111 articles since 2003, while 12 articles mentioned “pre-embryos,” the preferred term of Danforth and Neaves. The New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet, publications that support research cloning, have described nuclear transfer as the process that creates a “cloned embryo” and have used the term “therapeutic cloning.” Even a brochure promoting Amendment Two includes testimonials to the benefits of “therapeutic cloning.”

Editors of scientific and medical journals respect their readers too much to play word games with them. Would that the authors of Amendment Two had the same respect for Missouri voters. Their stealth strategy, enabled by the scientific illiteracy of the popular press, may convince Midwestern, red-state voters to enshrine cloning in their state constitution on November 7. If it does, we can expect to see similar ballot measures proposed from coast to coast. And the c-word will be nowhere in sight.