Catholic scholars square off over Obama’s ‘misleading’ stand on cloning

Professors Douglas Kmiec and Robert George
Professors Douglas Kmiec and Robert George


President Barack Obama’s position on human cloning was debated in a recent email exchange between Doug Kmiec and Robert P. George, with George insisting the president’s stated opposition to “reproductive” cloning is “misleading.”

Both agreed that in principle President Obama’s March 9 executive order on embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) allows the funding of research on stem cell lines derived from cloned embryos.

However, Kmiec emphasized that President Obama would prohibit cloning which resulted in embryos being implanted in a womb. George insisted that the president’s support for so-called “therapeutic cloning” should be highlighted for disapproval and criticized the “misleading” language of some who condemn only “reproductive cloning.”

George, who is a Princeton University law professor, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and a co-author of a book on the ethical status of the human embryo, initiated the exchange after Dan Gilgoff of U.S. News and World Report’s “God & Country” blog on March 10 posted an email from Kmiec on the president’s embryonic research policy.

In that email Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor and Catholic who supported President Obama’s election, voiced his disagreement with President Obama’s decision allowing more federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) “because of my faith and my acceptance, as a scientific matter, of the human zygote as the beginning of life.”

Kmiec wrote, “…no innocent human life is to be sacrificed for another even with the promise of medical breakthrough. That said, I do commend the President for his strong prohibition of human cloning.”

Beginning a three-day email exchange, George wrote a March 12 message challenging Kmiec’s report that President Obama backed a “strong prohibition of human cloning.”

George said that under President Obama’s policy, stem cells produced by destroying cloned human embryos will be “fully eligible for federal funding.”

He argued that the phrase “reproductive cloning” used in the president’s statement is “a misleading term.”

“It refers not to cloning itself, but rather to what one does or intends to do with the clone, i.e., the embryonic human being created by cloning, once the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer has been successfully completed. A ban on ‘reproductive cloning’ is a ban on implanting a human embryo produced by cloning and permitting the embryonic human to develop into infancy.”

“All successful cloning is reproductive: it brings into existence a complete, living member of the species in the embryonic stage of development,” George later wrote in a March 13 e-mail. “Reproduction has happened once the embryo exists. No cloning is ‘therapeutic’ since the subject of the cloning process (the embryo) is in no way healed or helped by the process. Indeed, in what is called by its supporters ‘therapeutic’ cloning, that subject is deliberately destroyed so that his or her cells can be used for purposes unconnected to his or her health or well-being.”

In his March 13 email, George asked Kmiec to correct his previous remarks on President Obama’s cloning position, arguing:

He noted that President Obama did not support the Brownback-Landrieu ban on human cloning “for any purpose” but instead was a co-sponsor of “competing legislation to allow human cloning while forbidding implantation and gestation of human embryos produced by cloning.”

In his reply, Kmiec noted that President Obama used the phrase “human reproductive cloning” in a manner “virtually identical” to the way it is used by the National Academies of Science (NAS).

Conceding that George’s definition is “better” in terms of its “explanatory power,” he said “I am less certain that the President warrants criticism for his usage of terminology accepted by the NAS.”

“I have already raised my disagreement with the President. I take it you share in my dissent,” Kmiec wrote.

Replying to Kmiec, George again focused on Kmiec’s original statement:

“You said that President Obama prohibited cloning. That is what readers of Dan Gilgoff's interview were given to believe on your authority. It is what they will believe if you do not correct the record and provide an accurate account of President Obama's policy.”

He then presented six questions he requested Kmiec answer, which Kmiec did in his final e-mail.

Kmiec refused to grant that President Obama did not prohibit human somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which George called “the scientific name for cloning.”

“While the administrative regulation remains to be drafted, there is no reason to believe based on what the President said that his ban on reproductive cloning would not include the process of SCNT where its intent was implantation and gestation,” he wrote.

Answering another of George’s questions, Kmiec said he “suspects” that the president supports cloning to create living human embryos which will be destroyed to produce stem cells for scientific research.

However, he said that until the administrative regulations are written, it is possible they will permit research only on embryos resulting from infertility or in-vitro fertilization procedures, embryos “that would otherwise be discarded.”

George’s final reply said he was glad Kmiec conceded that President Obama’s decision allows funding for material produced by destroying cloned human embryos, calling that “the most important fact” about the policy.

Agreeing with Kmiec that support should be built for preferring adult stem cell research, he said Kmiec should ask the president about his revocation of a 2007 Bush executive order promoting research on non-embryo-destructive sources of stem cells. George warned that many opponents of “reproductive cloning” nonetheless “have no problem with the industrial production of human embryos for research in which they are destroyed.”

George then invited Kmiec to debate the question “Did President Obama Prohibit Human Cloning” either at Princeton or Pepperdine, saying such an event would advance public understanding.

“It is very important for our fellow citizens to know whether or not President Obama prohibited human cloning, and to understand exactly what his policy is on the creation of new human beings by SCNT and other methods to be destroyed in federally funded biomedical research in the embryonic stage of development.”

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