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Infertility and Assisted Reproduction

Emerging Biotechnologies: Cloning

Cloning as a Women’s Health Issue

Over the past several years, amidst media hype and claims of cloned babies, the US Congress has considered various legislation regarding human cloning. The bills have proposed banning or restricting research in two different categories: reproductive cloning (to create babies who are genetic clones) and therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer, which involves creating cloned human embryos to serve as a source of embryonic stem cells for scientific research.

While most women’s groups, as well as most Americans, agree that reproductive cloning is unethical, therapeutic cloning raises more complex issues. Women’s health activists are often split on the issue of whether therapeutic cloning offers women more benefits or risks. We’ve gathered together a range of resources and information to help illuminate the many complex issues raised by cloning.

Many medical researchers believe that stem cells, which have a unique capacity to develop into different kinds of cells and tissue, hold great promise for medical breakthroughs. They believe that cloning research will lead to improvements in treatments or possibly cures for spinal cord injuries and degenerative genetic diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes. For this reason, several women’s health organizations including the National Partnership for Women and Families, The National Organization of Women, the Society for Women's Health Research and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly support therapeutic cloning. In addition, some women’s health organizations support therapeutic cloning because of concerns that anti-cloning legislation could compromise efforts to preserve abortion rights. This is because most objections to therapeutic cloning have focused on the sanctity of the fetus, thus causing the issue to dovetail with abortion rights.

Yet it is not the status of the fetus that raises objections among many others. Opponents of therapeutic cloning express a range of concerns, including the following: cloning would place undue health burdens on women; cloning could turn women’s eggs and wombs into commodities; therapeutic cloning would inevitably lead to non-therapeutic germline genetic modifications (modifications that would be passed on to future generations) and the potential resurgence of a eugenics movement.

OBOS is one of the women’s health organizations that support legislation to limit cloning research. Because cloning involves the development of powerful new technologies with profound implications for the future of humanity, we support a 5-year moratorium on therapeutic cloning. The moratorium would allow time for a fuller discussion of the many scientific and ethical questions raised by these new technologies.

OBOS believes there are important distinctions to be made between embryonic stem cell research using embryos NOT created via cloning techniques (for example, embryos created at in vitro fertilization clinics) and creating embryos for therapeutic clonal embryo research. While we support most stem cell research, because of its medical potential, we do not believe that we currently need to create clonal embryos solely for such research. Furthermore, current stem cell research on adult stem cells may ultimately obviate the need for cloned embryos. Our Statement on Human Cloning, which has been signed by over 100 individuals and groups who share our concerns, explains our position in detail. In addition we’ve posted a similar position statement of Ser Mulher, a women's health organization in Brazil, in both Spanish and Portuguese.

Among the potential health risks that cloning would pose to women are the risks involved in stimulating egg production and in harvesting the eggs from women. We are particularly concerned about the risks of one particular drug, Lupron™, which is used to hyperstimulate women's ovaries to produce more eggs. For more information, see Egg Donation for IVF and Stem Cell Research: Time to Weigh the Risks to Women’s Health.

Feminists who support limits on cloning research are finding themselves in the unusual position of being in agreement with some anti-choice Republicans. A recent newspaper article from the San Francisco Chronicle, Odd-couple Pairing in U.S. Cloning Debate, examines this awkward alliance, as does the New York Times article Some for Abortion Rights Lean Right in Cloning Fight  (unfortunately available online only for a fee). OBOS's Judy Norsigian's brief letter-to-the-editor in response to the Times article was printed in the 1/31/02 edition; her expanded response is posted on our website in its entirety. We also have her opening remarks from "The Great Debate on Cloning" held at the Boston University School of Communication on April 2, 2002.

We’ve also posted a critique of human cloning by Lisa Handwerker, a board member of the National Women's Health Network; an article on why cloning is a women's issue by Marcy Darnovsky; the 2006 testimony of OBOS Executive Director Judy Norsigian before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee and her  2002 testimony before a Senate subcommittee; and a letter from physician Suzanne Parisian, a former Chief Medical Officer of the Food and Drug Administration, on why it is unwise to use ovulation stimulating drugs on women in cloning research.

To find out more about the cloning debate among women’s health activists, see Cloning Debate Splits Women's Health Movement and Women's Health and The Cloning Debate. To find additional information and resources on the ethics and implications of cloning and stem cell research, check out the Center for Genetics and Society.

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