Say It Ain’t So, Jim!

Filed in Politics, Science, Social IssuesTags: Clone The Truth, Cloning, Media Bias, Missouri, Republicans, Saint Louis, Sanctity of Life, Stem Cells

Hat tip: Arch City Chronicle. Also, Jamie Allman discussed this article this afternoon on 97.1 FM Talk while filling in on the Dave Glover Show. He mentioned an email I sent him regarding some of these issues.

The Post-Dispatch reports Senator Talent's capitulation on banning embryonic stem cell research in Missouri, and, as usual when reporting on stem cell research, gets the story completely wrong.

First, on the poor reporting:

Following the lead-in, the article makes the following statement:

Wading into a political minefield that has pitted abortion-rights opponents against some scientists and families struggling with debilitating diseases, Talent, R-Mo., said Friday there were "no prospects" for enacting the ban on human cloning—a bill he has co-sponsored for the last four years.

The argument that this debate pits abortion-rights opponents against scientists and families struggling with debilitating diseases is both specious and sensational. It evokes the entirely unproven notion that embryonic stem cell research has shown at all any unique promise in therapeutic benefits in order to appeal to the emotional sensibilities of an otherwise-ignorant audience. (See this previous post for related links.) The inarguable reality is that, for those families struggling with debilitating diseases, the only real hope exists right now in adult stem cell research. While embryonic stem cell research has produced not one benefit, adult stem cell research has produced some sixty-five benefits (as of July 2005) for cancer, auto-immune diseases, cardiovascular and ocular problems, neural/degenerative illnesses and injuries, anemia and other blood conditions, metabolic disorders, and various wounds and injuries.

Without this context, the uninformed reader is led to assume that without embryonic stem cell research, no hope exists for therapies or cures for such debilitating diseases. Without this context, such a reader is left ignorant even of the differentiation between adult and embryonic stem cell research. Without this context, the reader does not recognize that the ban only applies to embryonic stem cell research, preserving the efficacious adult stem cell research.

Toward the end of the article, the following statement appears:

In his speech Friday, Talent said the new form of stem cell research makes therapeutic cloning unnecessary.

In that process, also known as or somatic cell nuclear transfer, the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is replaced with the nucleus of another cell from a human body. The egg is then stimulated to divide, as it would when fertilized by a sperm, and the early stem cells are harvested. Stem cells can mature into a variety of cells to form organs and other body parts.

Now here's a semantic argument I've not yet heard; likely, because Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) and therapeutic cloning are exactly the same thing. The two terms are interchangeable:

Therapeutic cloning (also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, cell nuclear replacement, research cloning, and embryo cloning)...

What is unclear from this simplified description is that what results from this process is a genetically complete human cell. Stem cells are extracted from the developing embryo (at this stage, referred to as a "blastocyst"), destroying the embryo in the process. Left to its own devices, it would develop into a fully formed human being. This point is indisputible. From Clone The Truth:

SCNT is the same in both therapeutic and reproductive cloning. The only difference is whether the cloned embryo is implanted.

Implantation differentiates between therapeutic and reproductive cloning - not the process that yields the embryo in question.

It appears that the Post-Dispatch just got the story completely wrong. From the Kansas City Star, Talent is favoring not SCNT, but a technique known as "altered nuclear transfer" (ANT):

Saying new scientific research may make it possible to create stem cells without cloning human embryos, Sen. Jim Talent on Friday withdrew as co-sponsor of a bill that would ban all human cloning and make it a crime for anyone to take part in the process.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Talent said the alternative research made the bill unnecessary. The new research - called altered nuclear transfer - would provide common ground for people on all sides of the issue, he said.

First, a brief description of ANT:

Altered Nuclear Transfer uses the technology of NT but with a preemptive alteration that assures that no embrye is created. The somatic cell nucleus or the emucleated egg contents (cytoplasm) or both are first altered before the somatic cell nucleus is transferred into the egg. The alterations cause the somatic cell DNA to function in such a way that no embryo is generated, but pluripotent stem cells (PSCs) are produced.

"...no embryo is generated, but pluripotent stem cells (PSCs) are produced" - a curious statement, that. In layman's terms, ANT alters the two components prior to the nuclear transfer, such that the embryonic development is genetically altered to prevent the ability of the embryo to develop fully. The claim that the embryo is non-human is clearly untrue; it is simply a human embryo genetically altered to prevent its full development. Contrary to the claims that this method eliminates ethical concerns over SCNT, I find the method to be even more morally repugnant, as researchers assume even more God-like power over the embryo, choosing which will be allowed to develop, and which will not.

ANT still performs a nuclear transfer; this process is, by definition, cloning. Regardless of how the components are genetically altered, the resultant clone still develops enough to produce human embryonic stem cells. Only a human embryo can produce human embryonic stem cells.

Now, on to Senator Talent:

From the article:

In a surprise turnabout, Sen. Jim Talent withdrew his support Friday for a controversial ban on human cloning and offered what he said was a compromise proposal that would heal the deep divide over stem cell research.

...

Talent said his alternative proposal, which he is still developing, would fund a newly emerging technology that avoids the most dicey element of the debate -- the destruction of human embryos that occurs in traditional stem cell research.

...

But even as Talent outlined his new position on Fridays -- saying he’d spent a year researching the issue -- the Missouri senator still declined to take a position on a state initiative petition that has made the stem cell debate so hot at home.

Mr. Talent, with all due respect, if you have "researched the issue" for an entire year, surely you wouldn't make the mistake of trying to differentiate between any form of nuclear transfer and therapeutic cloning. Surely you would know that no such "emerging technology" exists that would avoid the destruction of human embryos. From one of your staunchest supporters, know that you will have a great deal of explaining to do, and will have an extremely difficult time trying to justify this move.

Senator Talent, your argument fails on two points:

First, if ANT, as its proponents claim, is not cloning, and does not produce a human embryo, then it is not inconsistent with a proposed ban on human cloning. Passing such a ban - either federally, or in Missouri - would not prevent research that neither clones human DNA nor produces human embryos.

Second, if ANT is a form of human cloning, and does produce human embryos, then all the same ethical and moral questions remain. It is not then a "compromise" acceptable to both sides of the controversy, as you claim:

"There's a sense on both sides of the controversy that if you propose something that concedes something to the other side, you give up something yourself," Talent said. "It is going to become increasingly clear that the way for both sides to get what they want is to compromise."

Senator Talent, with respect to the destruction of human embryos, we have no intention of compromising on the sanctity of every life, no matter at what point in its development. We have no intention of conceding even a single human life.

Consistent with the Clone the Truth campaign, I am committed to ensuring that the truth about adult and embryonic stem cell and related research is made known. I am likewise committed to ensuring that this deceptively worded and ill-advised ballot initiative is defeated.

UPDATE:
Clone the Truth references this post, and calls ANT a "Trojan Horse."

UPDATE II:
ProLifeBlogs is now running with this story, as well, linking also to Secondhand Smoke, who in turn references Ramesh Ponnuru in NRO.

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5 Responses to “Say It Ain’t So, Jim!”
  1. Awesome synthesis, especially on ANT. I think the ANT proposal made be back-firing if people like Talent are using it as a way to support the initiative “guilt-free” I had a reader send me an editorial in a Catholic diosese paper that urged lifting the ban on cloning in their state to allow ANT research. Details people, details!

  2. Chip, looked at your bio and found out why you are so good at critical thinking and getting to the heart of the issue…

    I was a chem major too! 🙂

  3. cb says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    To me, ANT sounds like more of the same nomenclature game, like calling an embryo a “blastocyst” or “viable tissue mass” – an attempt to divert from reality. Genetically altering a human embryo in such a way as to disrupt its developmental process does not make the embryo non-human; however, to make such an intentional mutilation may very well render the culprit inhuman – for to do so is to “create” a life with the intent of preventing its full development.

    No matter how they phrase it, they cannot get around this fact: nuclear transfer IS cloning. If it starts as a human, the result is a cloned human, no matter how it is altered genetically.

  4. cb says:

    Rebecca,

    Heh, once an engineer, always an engineer. 🙂

  5. I don’t think it’s as clear on ANT. The way it’s usually been described from what I’ve read is that they alter the genetic information before they import the nucleus. The genetic engineering thus takes place before there’s any orgnanism, and I think what they’re doing is not like producing a human being that is alive and unable to grow but more like producing a corpse with still-living material. But it’s not producing a corpse by killing an organism. It’s more like producing a corpse by putting together materials that are incapable of being an organism. That doesn’t sound anywhere near as problematic as the way you describe it. I think there are ethical worries, but I think it’s misleading to describe it as a living embryo and then preventing it from growing. Does it count as an organism at all? I don’t think that’s as easy a question as you’re making it sound. Current understandings of what it takes to answer that seem to me to be indeterminate on this sort of question.

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