NEW YORK Scientists' assertion that the advance in therapeutic cloning announced on Wednesday could not and would not pave the way to cloning a baby did little to assuage critics of the research.
The research "will lead inexorably to cloning to produce a live born child," said bioethicist O. Carter Snead, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic University in Indiana.
The new study used techniques similar to those that created Dolly, the cloned sheep, in Scotland in 1996. Scientists at Oregon Health & Science University and the Oregon National Primate Research Center slipped an adult skin cell into a human egg whose genetic material had been removed. After several innovations that allowed them to succeed where other scientists had failed for 15 years, they got the egg to divide and reproduce much like a fertilized egg, even though no sperm had gone near it.
The process is called therapeutic cloning because it created embryonic stem cells, which hold promise for treating a number of degenerative diseases, such as macular degeneration, and injuries.
But to critics, the result was an abomination.
Human cloning for any purpose is inconsistent with the moral responsibility to "treat each member of the human family as a unique gift of God, as a person with his or her own inherent dignity," said Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement. "Creating new human lives in the laboratory solely to destroy them is an abuse denounced even by many who do not share the Catholic Church's convictions on human life."
He warned that, although the Oregon scientists and other experts said the new technique could not be used to create babies, it might be. And even using the embryonic stem cells to treat suffering patients did not alter the moral equation, critics said in an echo of the bitter battles over stem cell research that raged a decade ago.
"Whether used for one purpose or the other, human cloning treats human beings as products, manufactured to order to suit other people's wishes," O'Malley said. "A technical advance in human cloning is not progress for humanity but its opposite."
Notre Dame's Snead said "the use and destruction of living human beings - at any stage of biological development - for scientific research is a terrible injustice."
He said it was even worse than using embryos donated from fertility clinics, because "human beings were created specifically and solely to be used and destroyed for someone else's research project."
And because the Oregon technique requires human eggs, Snead said, "this creates new forms of coercion, especially for the poor and vulnerable (women) to treat their own bodies as an object of commerce."
He warned that laws against the use of cloning to produce a baby who is a genetic copy of someone else are patchy at best. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states have addressed the issue of cloning.
California was the first to ban reproductive cloning, doing so in 1997, the year Dolly's creation was announced. Since then about a dozen states have followed suit, and a few others just prohibit the use of state funds for reproductive cloning.
About six states also ban therapeutic cloning; Oregon is not among them.
(Reporting by Sharon Begley; Editing by Douglas Royalty)