Final Word: The Public Side of Science: The Cloning Three Ring Circus

Cloning has become a hot topic — to scientists and the public alike
Mar 01, 2005
Volume 18, Issue 3

Tamara Zemlo, Ph.D., MPH
In this century, we are unlikely to face biomedical issues more complex and controversial than that of human cloning coupled with embryonic stem cell research. With the stakes so high — promises of cures and therapies for a host of devastating diseases and medical conditions set against impassioned disputes about when life begins — the cloning debate has evolved beyond the realm of scientific discourse and into the spotlight of public opinion. Unfortunately, this intense scrutiny, largely fueled by the media, has resulted in the misrepresentation of facts, and the twisting of scientific opinions as statements about cloning are often taken out of their appropriate context. In an attempt to counteract this damaging trend, The Science Advisory Board decided to poll its members about some of the most controversial aspects of the cloning debate.

The majority of scientists surveyed believe that human therapeutic cloning research should be permitted. Furthermore, 68 percent of the scientists state that there should never be a complete national ban on all human therapeutic cloning research. Only a small minority (less than 10 percent) thinks that such research should not be allowed.

The majority of life scientists who participated in this study strongly believe that human therapeutic research should proceed primarily so as not to delay or forgo critical medical benefits for patients. There appears to be a general consensus that a national policy on human therapeutic cloning research should be developed and it should clearly distinguish between therapeutic and reproductive cloning research. Furthermore, the policy should provide regulations on therapeutic cloning research that include review of research proposals by committees made up of both scientific and medical researchers as well as ethicists and other relevant professions.

While the collective responses convey an urgent need to address the issues surrounding the cloning debate in a proactive manner, respondents seem pessimistic about their government's ability to do so. Many scientists believe that cloning research will proceed with or without careful scrutiny and proper safeguards because of the availability of private funding and therefore welcome a more open and critical approach that involves public involvement. However, despite this inclusive attitude, scientists perceive a great divide between their own ability versus the public's ability to fully grasp the technical details of cloning that they believe will be necessary to make informed decisions. Some scientists feel that misperceptions — both created and perpetuated by the media — are largely responsible for erecting this gulf thereby fueling contentious religious and moral debates.

Looking beyond the altruistic rationale expressed by many scientists of using human therapeutic cloning to develop cures and treatments, more selfish motivations surfaced. The more candid scientists expressed their desire to see cloning research supported because of curiosity and excitement over the unknown. Others worried that their country would be left behind, if cloning research was not generously supported and minimally regulated. Still others complained that government has no business in proscribing cloning research on ethical grounds.

While skeptical that human reproductive cloning will ever be technically feasible, most scientists seem to accept the hypothetical medical benefits of human therapeutic cloning as an ultimate reality. In fact, this resolute belief is used by many of them as the most convincing justification for supporting therapeutic cloning research even when it involves the destruction of human embryos. Only a few dissenting voices were heard during the course of this study about the dangers of scientists themselves misrepresenting cloning's healing potential to the public. This blindness is remarkably ironic because scientists often criticize the media for just such overstatements.

Tamara Zemlo, Ph.D., MPH, is director of Scientific & Medical Communications for The Science Advisory Board, a division of BioInformatics, LLC, Arlington, VA,

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