February 7, 2003

‘Romancing the clone’ lecture turns over new stone in debate

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Larry Churchill, Ph.D.

‘Romancing the clone’ lecture turns over new stone in debate

The Dean’s Lecture Series was delivered Tuesday without the presentation of a bar graph or pie chart, void of a discourse of disease progression and lacking a single conclusion.

Instead, Larry Churchill, Ph.D. used his Powerpoint slides to fill 208 Light Hall with thoughts, questions and ideas, and he used the lecture as “the beginning of a conversation” about a very serious and, he said, inevitable, biological topic.

“Romancing the Clone,” Churchill’s half-hour presentation, spelled out prevailing arguments for and against reproductive cloning and it reframed the issue to spur more serious discussion.

“The cloning debate looks more like a soap opera, or a love story, than a thoughtful exchange and deliberation,” said Churchill, Ann Geddes Stahlman Professor of Medical Ethics and professor of Medicine and Religion. “My aim is to de-romanticize cloning. Only if we do this can we hope to make progress and reach a social consensus.”

Dr. Mildred Stahlman, professor of Pediatrics and Pathology, whose father, the late James G. Stahlman, established the endowed chair Churchill holds and five others at Vanderbilt, said an ethical voice in the cloning debate is essential. “Medicine as a science is very impersonal, and is getting more so every day. Medical ethics brings reflection of these questions about who we are and what our responsibilities are as human beings,” she said.

Churchill’s lecture “affords Vanderbilt the opportunity to be at the vanguard of this scientific, ethical and social discussion,” said Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, Dean of the School of Medicine. “We are fortunate to have at Vanderbilt some of the finest thought leaders, not only in reproductive science but in the social sciences integral to the issue.”

The cloning issue has reached pop culture status. Futuristic movies portray clones as antagonists. A company called “Genetic Savings and Clone” promises to clone a pet dog or cat. In December the Raelian religious sect’s scientific corporation, Clonaid, reported they had cloned the first human, a baby girl named Eve. They have since denied access to the child for proper scientific confirmation that she is a clone.

Cloning offers a lens through which some basic questions of human and self-understanding can be observed, Churchill said. “Who are we? What is a self, and how should we comport ourselves toward issues that challenge and potentially threaten our self-understanding?”

Limiting his comments to reproductive cloning — somatic cell nuclear transfer — Churchill listed the most frequently cited uses for cloning: so someone who is infertile can have a biologically related child; to avoid the risk of a genetic disease (such as cystic fibrosis); so gay and lesbian couples can have children who are genetically related to them; to secure a genetically compatible organ source.

Arguments against cloning include: safety, the current state of cloning carries numerous risks both known and unknown; “harm to humanity,” the idea that cloning “will reduce the diversity of the human gene pool, and this is a bad thing to do”; and “wrongs to individuals,” namely stigmatization and exploitation of clones, or the deprivation of a genetic uniqueness.

The voices against cloning have been passionate. Leon Kass, chair of the president’s Bioethics Council, has likened it to incest. Stanley Hauerwas, a Duke University theologian, called it “evil.”

Churchill’s lecture challenged this hyperbolic tenor. Similar positions were taken when in-vitro fertilization was being developed in the 1970s, he said. If cloning is viewed as “reproductive medicine” instead of “human experimentation,” a different, less rigorous level of safety may be appropriate.

Cloned individuals will differ from their donor twins, Churchill says, in that they will not share the same mitochondrial DNA, they will have a different gestational process in a different womb, they will have different parents, they will grow up in a different time in history in different cultural, social and, most likely, geographical environments.

After framing the discussion he opened its door and encouraged discussion. That behavior is intrinsic to his role as an ethicist, and was fundamental to his upbringing.

As a boy in Little Rock, Ark., Churchill saw firsthand the divisive moral and ethical drama of the Civil Rights Movement. He was 15 when the governor closed public schools, including his older sister’s, instead of opening the doors to black students. “It was a revelation, the amount of appeal to racial hatred and bigotry,” he said recently.

He applies the lesson to ethics. “Freud called it the ‘narcissism of small differences.’ People who are very much alike will find differences in order to create hierarchy.”

His parents, both educators, reared their children with egalitarian ideals. This spawned in Churchill an interest in health care appropriations that he still holds close. Of the most important ethical issues, first on his list would be “the 42 million Americans without health insurance,” he said. He has addressed the issue in lectures and in several articles and books, including “Rationing Health Care in America: Perceptions and Principles of Justice.”

The Churchill kitchen table was a classroom extension. “It was part of learning,” he said. “It was an invigorating environment.”

Churchill came to Vanderbilt in July 2002, to the position previously held by Richard Zaner, Ph.D. Churchill has a builder’s resume. He spent 28 years at the University of North Carolina, where he began as a lecturer and helped create the department of Social Medicine, which he chaired from 1988 to 1999. In 2000 he co-founded the UNC Center for Health Ethics and Policy, a resource for conducting ethics research and improving ethics teaching in the health sciences. He is a member of the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine and the Hasting’s Center, the nation’s leading bioethics think tank.

Churchill nods to the long history of excellence in clinical consultation here, especially by Stuart Finder, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Center for Clinical and Research Ethics, and by Mark Bliton, Ph.D., whose involvement in Vanderbilt’s fetal surgery program has been essential to a worldwide debate about that issue.

Every excellent ethics program, Churchill says, performs four functions well: research and publication, ethics teaching, clinical consultation and service, and public service.

At Vanderbilt, Churchill aims to enhance clinical work and to hire new faculty to concentrate on empirical research in ethics. “There hasn’t been a tradition of looking for externally funded research through the NIH and through foundations. There’s beginning to be more money available from those sources for ethics work and ethics-related work. This is one of the areas we want to emphasize in the next few years.”

Meanwhile, expect him to continue asking questions, not simply to create rhetoric, but with the goal of progressing issues, spurring action and shaping policy and law.

“None of us are crystal clear about our values,” he said. “We have to be provoked.”

(Editor’s note: Bill Snyder contributed to this story.)