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The semantics of embryo research and human cloning

By Brian Harradine - posted Thursday, 16 June 2005

Last month’s human cloning breakthrough also came with a breakthrough in semantics. According to Korean researchers, the human embryos they cloned weren’t really embryos. They were “nuclear transfer constructs”.

The researchers tried to sweep away ethical concerns by renaming the cloned embryo.

It was a nice try. Perhaps the public would be fooled by this impenetrable language and think that nothing of concern had taken place.


But it’s not the first time for such semantic games. Professor of medical genetics at the University of Melbourne, Bob Williamson, tried a similar gambit at a conference in Canberra earlier this month. He argued, “There is no justification for regarding stem cells created by nuclear transfer as clones, far less ‘embryos’”. But of course you don’t clone stem cells. You clone human embryos and then destroy them by extracting their stem cells.

And there was an attempt some years ago to introduce the term “pre-embryo”, which is said to be an embryo less than two weeks old. It was a term created for political rather than scientific purposes, so that it could be argued pre-embryos should somehow be less valued.

The cloning debate is plagued by dodgy definitions. Research cloning lobbyists like Williamson often claim they are against human cloning. What they really mean is they are against cloning to produce a live baby - not against human cloning for research.

But human embryos are cloned using the same method, whether they are later used for research or for reproduction. It is the decisions made after they are cloned that determine what they’re used for.

The United Nations has seen the clear danger of human cloning. Three months ago the UN declaration on human cloning called for a ban on all cloning - whether for research or for reproduction.

The Korean research used a cloning method called “somatic cell nuclear transfer”, where the nucleus or genetic material of a human egg cell is removed and replaced by the nucleus of a cell from the person who is to be cloned. The new cell is then chemically stimulated to grow into an embryo.


South Korean scientists at the Seoul National University detailed how they managed to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos. They were the first to clone a human embryo last year. The Korean team is now able to produce more embryonic stem cell lines using fewer eggs and embryos. They claim their procedure was more efficient partly because they used fresh eggs from young, fertile women.

The source of eggs for human cloning is a cause for concern. Will women giving ova to cloning programs do so of their own free will, or will there be subtle pressures?

The journal Nature reported that one of the PhD students on the South Korean team that produced the first cloned embryo last year said she had donated ova to the program, but later retracted her statement. It is easy to see how a PhD student might feel obliged to show her commitment to a research project and provide eggs for cloning.

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An edited version of this article was published in The Canberra Times on May 26, 2005.

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About the Author

Senator Brian Harradine was an independent Senator for Tasmania.

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