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Cloning research should not be dictated by moral minorities

10 April 2000
By Juliet Tizzard
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 53
Cloning is back in news. This time, press attention was sparked by leaked information that a government advisory panel is about to recommend human cloning for therapeutic purposes and by a report published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics recommending the same.

It seems that as more and more respected institutions come out in favour of creating cloned human embryos for research and therapy, those opposed to cloning for this purpose (most of whom are anti-abortion activists) shout ever louder. But such commentators, instead of engaging in rational debate on the issues (a debate which is vitally important), seem to be utilising tactics which are designed to hoodwink the public. These tactics were on full display in an editorial in the Daily Telegraph - a newspaper edited by a proud anti-abortionist - and by a letter to the same newspaper from the equally anti-abortion peer David Alton.

The first tactic is use the word cloning to describe two very different things. When the Daily Telegraph said 'this government sees no problem with human cloning', it misled its readers. The British government may well approve of cloning in order to derive stem cells for tissue therapies. But it certainly doesn't approve of the birth of babies cloned from existing people. Conflating the two different types of cloning in this way is simply a cynical attempt to pull the wool over readers' eyes.

The second tactic to discredit therapeutic cloning is to call the creation of embryos for this purpose 'technological cannibalism'. Using soundbites such as this is the lowest form of spin. Cannibalism is about humans eating humans. Creating embryos in order to develop tissue therapies is about prolonging or saving human lives. It is no more cannibalistic than organ donation.

The final tactic used to undermine cloning and stem cell research is to suggest that there are other, more fruitful, methods of stem cell derivation which do not involve the creation of human embryos in the laboratory. The Daily Telegraph editorial suggested that deriving stem cells which already exist in the body of an adult would be scientifically preferable. Whilst this approach seems to be perfectly legitimate, it is actually shockingly disingenuous. Far from being interested in pursuing the most fruitful method of deriving compatible tissues for transplant, these commentators are picking the research methods which best please their moral palates.

The point is that we don't yet know which method of stem cell derivation will be the best. Efforts to date show that embryonic stem cells will probably be more useful that stem cells from adults, but we're not really sure. It is precisely because we aren't yet sure that the door to each method of stem cell derivation should left open, not selectively closed to please the moral sensibilities of a vocal minority.

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