Early critics of the government's proposed legislation on assisted human reproduction have objected to the criminal ban on human cloning. They believe that cloning for research purposes should not be prohibited, and they particularly object to using the criminal law as the mechanism for the prohibition. Some media have endorsed these objections -- too bad, because they're misguided and exaggerate the medical and economic benefits of human cloning.
The Assisted Human Reproduction Act introduced in Parliament on May 9 includes a number of prohibitions. First on this list is a prohibition against knowingly creating a human clone or transplanting a human clone into a human being. Anyone so doing could be fined as much as $500,000, or imprisoned for as many as 10 years, or both.
Several different technologies can be used to make a human clone, including embryo splitting, parthenogenesis and nuclear transfer technology. For now, attention is focused on nuclear transplantation: With this technology, scientists take any cell from the body other than the egg and sperm and remove its nucleus. The nucleus contains the bulk of the DNA that makes each of us genetically unique. This nucleus is then used to replace the nucleus of an unfertilized egg, which is activated to develop into an embryo that will have the same DNA as the person who donated the original body cell. If this embryo is used for stem-cell research, it will be dissected and used to create an embryonic stem-cell line. Stem-cell research has the potential to transform the treatment of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, stroke and diabetes.
However, what the public needs to understand is that stem-cell research and cloning research are separate. It's possible to support stem-cell research using "spare" embryos created by in vitro fertilization without, at the same time, supporting the creation of research embryos using cloning technology.
So why the fuss about human cloning? Stem-cell scientists want to use cloned embryos instead of IVF embryos because if the transplanted stem cells have the same DNA as the patient, they hope it may be possible to prevent potential immune rejection.
However, there may not be any immune rejection problem with transplanted IVF embryonic stem cells. Besides, we're still years away from clinical trials of stem-cell therapies involving humans. Canadian scientists first have to learn how to develop and expand embryonic stem-cell lines; years of study in testing potential stem-cell therapies in animals will follow before research involving humans is contemplated. At that point, the potential immunity benefits of deriving human stem cells from cloned embryos may become relevant. Until then, these potential benefits are not relevant, because the cells aren't being transplanted into humans.
Creating cloned human embryos for research is a step of enormous moral consequence. It's still not clear that it's a necessary step. So why take it? For now, cloning human embryos should be prohibited. Even those proponents of unrestricted research who accept the prohibition object to the proposed mechanism: criminal law. They say it's too inflexible to deal with a scientifically and socially dynamic issue. But with political will, legislation can be changed in as little as 24 days; surely this isn't too much time to reflect on a step as serious as changing the legal status of human cloning.
Those who object to the criminal ban on cloning argue that we need a regulatory scheme that encourages public discussion about the potential harms and benefits of human cloning. However, law encourages public deliberation more than regulation does, because regulations aren't debated in the House, and therefore don't come to media attention and public scrutiny.
Finally, critics of the proposed legislation suggest that criminal law is too "severe" a tool. To that objection, we say: If Canadians think prohibiting human cloning is a serious matter, then a severe response is appropriate.
Ottawa has promised to review the assisted-human-reproduction legislation within three years. In Canada we are certainly more than three years away from clinical trials involving humans and any possible need for creating cloned embryos to get stem cells for transplants. Let's not be fooled into rushing ahead. As a warning to those who continue to chant the mantra that legislation and excessive regulation could hamper research of considerable medical and economic value, let's recall the words of the late philosopher Hans Jonas: "Too ruthless a pursuit of science would make its most dazzling pursuit not worth having." Françoise Baylis is professor of bioethics and philosophy at Dalhousie University. Jocelyn Downie is Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and director of Dalhousie's Health Law Institute.