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Cloning Bans Could Have Impact on Infertility Treatments
By Stephen Smith
January 9, 1998
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The news this week that a maverick Chicago researcher intends to defy President Clinton's voluntary moratorium on human cloning may accelerate Congressional efforts to make cloning illegal. Infertility specialists warn that bills now before Congress might go beyond cloning to stifle research on important new infertility therapies.

INFERTILITY RESEARCHERS TAKE PAINS to define cloning in the narrowest terms, as a process that would use the nucleus from a single mature cell and place it in a woman's egg from which the nucleus had been removed - then jolting that hybrid cell to life with electricity. No sperm need be involved, so the baby's genetic material would all come from just one person. While many infertility specialists recoil at the prospect of such "solo" cloning, there are critical aspects of the process that could help infertile couples. A number of infertility programs across the country are working on treatments that might be called "near-cloning." Doctor Jamie Grifo is a leading infertility researcher at New York University.

Grifo: Our work has been confused with cloning because we are using nuclear transfer technology to help a group of patients who have really a problem with their eggs, and that problem lies in the cytoplasm. By taking the nucleus out of those damaged eggs, so to speak, and putting them into healthy eggs that have their nucleus removed, we are able to help a patient use their own genetic material when in the past we would only be able to give them donor eggs.
Grifo says his work is not cloning because the resulting children would be the genetic offspring of two parents, not one. Grifo's work is still in the laboratory stage - no pregnancies have been attempted. Still, he worries that the science is so tricky to define that cloning bans now before Congress may be broad enough to scuttle his work. Infertility technologies, he says, are advancing too rapidly for politics.
Grifo: So then the people who are in these political groups have to figure out how to integrate the new science into their old politics, and sometimes they just don't fit in the little boxes real well, and it makes everybody a little bit confused, and it makes it difficult. One approach is to say, "Let's ban all this stuff so I don't have to deal with this and figure out how to put this into my politics," which is great for their politics, but it's bad for my patients.
The main organization representing infertility specialists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, supports President Clinton's request for temporary moratorium on cloning. ASRM spokesman Sean Tipton says the cloning experiment proposed by Chicago scientist Richard Seed is unethical because it would involve making an actual human baby for an actual infertile couple.
Tipton: We don't feel that the science is there yet, and it's a dangerous procedure, an untested procedure.

But Tipton says the ASRM supports human cloning research in the laboratory, and legislation now before Congress could outlaw that. Tipton warns that a cloning ban might quash a variety of embryo research programs that could benefit the infertile.
Tipton: If the American public and the policy makers who represent them are concerned about the specter of cloning, if they don't want whoever has the money - Michael Jackson, or Ross Perot, or Bill Gates, or pick your favorite rich person who you don't want to see cloned and put their name in there - if people are worried about those things happening, fine. Let's deal with that issue, but let's not foreclose important therapies for infertile patients who might need them. Let's not foreclose pursuing this scientific avenue to so we can see where it's going to lead us.
Bio-ethicists are divided on whether human cloning represents a moral and social ill. University of Minnesota bio-ethicist Jeffrey Kahn says, in one way, cloning is a socially conservative approach to making a family, when you compare it to some of the other solutions infertile couples are now using.
Kahn: I think it gets much more socially complicated when you talk about surrogacy - when other people are brought into the picture, and that often does happen when you are talking about gamete donation as well. They have now open donation of sperm and ova in some states where you can actually say, "Yes, I want to be contacted and sort of be part of the family life that is being created by this donation." It's sort of odd that we are focusing on something that doesn't bring lots more people into the otherwise nuclear family, but rather conserves the genetic material between the two people or only one person from whom it comes.
President Clinton banned the use of federal money for cloning research and wants to outlaw both public and private attempts at human cloning for the near future. His national bio-ethics advisory commission found cloning too unsafe to try in humans - at least for now. Some observers say cloning is inevitable because there are scientists willing to try it. Jeffrey Kahn says Congress might actually consider paying for - and thereby controlling - cloning studies, at least to keep them out of the hands of scientific renegades like Chicago's Richard Seed.
Kahn: It won't be any safer if there is a moratorium for seven years than it is today. And so you've got to wonder, how are we ever going to move this forward if there's no possibility of research or clinical application to make it safer at all?
Infertility specialists at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine are likely to propose their own legislation on cloning in coming weeks. The basic thrust: keep it legal to clone human cells in a laboratory dish, but make it illegal to actually put that cloned embryo in a woman's body.

For more on the subject of infertility, see
The Fertility Race
An extensive site covering social, scientific, and medical aspects of the topic.