The Senate is considering a proposal to outlaw human cloning. Two alternative proposals would ban only "reproductive cloning," which would mean explicitly legalizing human cloning but not the implantation of a clone embryo into a womb. Pro-cloners are willing for the most part to outlaw reproductive cloning because it isn't safe, but they oppose a ban on cloning for research and experimentation--known as "therapeutic cloning"--arguing that such a cloning license is necessary to the development of future medical treatments for human ailments. This opposition to a ban on human therapeutic cloning is misinformed.
The case against cloning, including therapeutic cloning, has mainly been argued on grounds of morality. Opponents have warned that creating embryos through cloning for the purpose of research (with the full intention of destroying them later) is a breathtakingly radical enterprise. For the first time in history, human lives will be created for the explicit purpose of exploitation. Such considerations have led activist Jeremy Rifkin to opine that the cloning debate is to the 21st century what the slavery debate was to the 19th.
Unfortunately, we live in a time of widespread and extreme non-judgmentalism, an era when many Americans simply do not respond to moral arguments in public policy debates. For these folk, what counts is not right versus wrong, but whether it will or won't work--in a word, utility.
Does this mean that the public policy amoralists among us must end up by default on the pro-cloning side? Not at all. There is increasing evidence that therapies based on cloned embryo cells would be so difficult and expensive to develop and so utterly impractical to bring to the bedside, that the pie-in-the-sky promises which fuel the pro-cloning side of the debate are unlikely to materialize. Not only is human cloning immoral but it may have negative utility--in other words, attempting to develop human cloning technologies for therapeutic use may drain resources and personnel from more useful and practical therapies.
To understand why therapeutic cloning fails the utility test, we must take a quick look at the significant difficulties facing embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cell researchers hope to create medical treatments that would use undifferentiated cells--known generically as stem cells--extracted from 5-to-7-day-old embryos known as blastocysts. During natural gestation, these stem cells eventually "differentiate," that is, they transform into bone, neurons, muscle, organs, blood--indeed, all of the more than 200 different tissue types in the body. Researchers hope to learn how to harness this ability by extracting stem cells from embryos, transforming them into specific tissues, and then injecting the tissues into patients to treat medical ailments.
In their enthusiasm for embryonic stem cells--and in an effort to assure ample funding for the research--some...