AFTER TWO YEARS spent lobbying and badgering members of their Institutional Review Board, Harvard scientists now report that they have clearance to enter the race to be first to produce embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. Harvard Provost Dr. Steven Hyman and the members of Harvard's review board must have finally succumbed to their scientists' propaganda for the grand future of human embryo cloning research. They must also be reacting to their scientists' chides that Harvard could have been beaten out if the Korean human cloning effort had not proved rotten with ethical misconduct and fraudulent reports.
The provost and board members had better get ready to answer to their decision to vacate their responsibility to protect and safeguard the life and health of human research subjects. Harvard scientists who wish to clone human embryos now face a better-informed public that is increasingly aware of the vast gap between promises from human embryo research and scientific reality.
In particular, there is more awareness that embryonic stem cells, whether derived from natural human embryos or cloned ones, cannot be used to treat diseases in adults or children. To get permission to enter the human embryo cloning race, scientists at Harvard and other planned centers for human embryo cloning in this country are now feeding their review boards and the public a new line. They promise that cloned embryos will allow determination of the cause of a person's illness by analysis of embryonic stem cells derived from the person's own cloned embryos. They pronounce that this research is too important to not do.
However, they fail to disclose that pigs will grow wings and fly before this approach leads to successful medical therapies. Besides being a falsehood hidden under research future-speak, their promise is also logically inconsistent with their past statements.
Using cloned embryos to investigate the basis of disease in adults and children will often, if indeed not always, require that the embryos undergo maturation. Just a couple of years ago, these same would-be-cloners told us that permitting cloned embryos to mature was exactly the line that they would never cross. What scientists on the Harvard review board allowed such an obvious contradiction to be bypassed?
Research involving humans is subject to the regulations that institutional review boards are charged with enforcing. As living human beings, human embryos, no matter how they are created, are protected from research that threatens their life and well-being. Because of the rampant misinformation that confuses the human embryo research debate, members of Harvard's review board may have struggled with the precept that human embryos are living human beings.
People value foremost the lives they know and understand. The drive to protect the lives of those we know and love is instinctive for individuals and societies. Much of human ingenuity has been dedicated to preserving human life. Thus, with caring, nursing, and technology, we hold and protect our living who cannot move, who cannot communicate, who cannot awaken, who cannot grow, whose hearts cannot beat unaided, and who cannot breathe.
We even fight to reclaim our living from the sudden death of heart attacks. A defining feature of our humanity is that we also have the capacity to do the same for others whom we do not know. If the hands of members of the Harvard review board were sensitive enough, they could come to know human embryos better. They could feel that the smallest such embryos, like us, are warm to the touch, that they move as they grow, and they breathe just as surely as we do.
It is not too late for Harvard's review board members to come to know this simple truth and revoke the school's entry into the race to clone and exploit human embryos for research. Withdrawal from the human embryo cloning race will certainly not prevent Harvard from leading in meaningful stem cell research. Indeed, the new Harvard Stem Cell Institute will have greater impact by focusing on animal embryonic stem-cell research and adult stem-cell research, which do not require similar moral and ethical trespasses.
A favorite hypothetical example used by would-be Harvard cloners to support the research is what a person would do if confronted with a child in a burning in-vitro fertilization clinic. Their position is that only the child would be rescued, and the embryos left behind to perish. However, that view is based on ill-informed persons like members of Harvard's board. A better-informed person would look for a way to rescue the child and the embryos.
The members of Harvard's review board should fear the temptations of the line they're crossing, reconsider their decision, and withdraw from a race that will occur on a track littered with innocent human lives.
James L. Sherley is a stem cell biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a graduate of Harvard.