News About Genetically Altered Embryo Points to Human Cloning Concerns

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 13, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

News About Genetically Altered Embryo Points to Human Cloning Concerns

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
May 13
, 2008

Washington, DC ( — News about the first supposedly genetically altered human embryo is generating headlines from across the world. While the scientists involved in the project defend their work and deflect concerns, bioethicists say it presents a host of concerns about moving towards full-fledged human cloning.

Dr. Zev Rosenwaks, of the New York-based Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, is the lead author behind a new paper about the work.

The paper outlines what is supposedly the first report of genetically modifying a human embryo. The paper was originally presented at a American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting last fall, but it only now getting public attention.

Rosenwaks’ team inserted a marker gene into a days-old unborn child who had extra chromosomes, making it so the baby would not be able to be born. They hoped to be able to trace the marker gene in the stem cells obtained from the human embryo after the unique human being was killed.

However, Rosenwaks confirmed in an interview with the Associated Press that the embryo never developed further and no stem cells were collected.

Noted bioethics attorney and lecturer Wesley Smith responded to the news by saying media outlets hyped the news.

"In my view, this isn’t quite as big a deal as reporters are making out," he says.

"First, the embryo was never viable in the first place because it was genetically defective. Nor was it created for the purpose of destroying it–which is the agenda of cloning research, the essential technology for learning how to genetically engineer the human race," he explained.

Smith said scientists have already genetically altered mammalian life, so the news that they have done the same thing in humans isn’t a huge revelation.

"Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like it. I oppose treating human life, even if it is ultimately nonviable, as a mere instrumentality. But it doesn’t really move the ball toward human genetic enhancement forward," he said.

To make progress in human cloning, Smith said scientists would have to follow the same process as used in animals, where hundreds of thousands of embryos have been killed to produce clones. And, in the case with Dolly, some of the "successful" clones had to be euthanasized because of problems.

Rosenwaks told AP that "None of us wants to make designer babies," but Smith says that doesn’t alleviate the concern that researchers will proceed anyway.

"He should speak for himself. There are plenty of people biting at the bit to genetically engineer embryos, and a cadre of bioethicists and lawyers already laying down the intellectual foundation to create a constitutional right to do it," he said.

"If human cloning can ever be done reliably–a big if–an increasing number of advocates and media will urge the right to genetically engineer, first for health and later for enhancement, based on a supposed absolute right to procreate and to create the baby you want," he added.

"That is the trajectory they are on, and all you have to do is read the books and bioethics articles already in print to verify it," Smith concluded.