Family's Twins Put a Face on Cloning Amendment

by Michael Foust

Robert and Anna Burnett of Kansas City, Mo., had a deep personal interest in the much-debated Missouri ballot initiative protecting embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning that passed by a slim margin on November 7. Their two children, 14-month-old twins EmmaLyn and Ian, formerly were frozen embryos-the same type of embryos that are thawed and destroyed to harvest stem cells for research. The Burnetts-who aren't opposed to all stem cell research-just the research that requires the destruction of embryos-were vocal opponents of the initiative, Amendment 2, and for good reason. "We've basically been willing to go anywhere anyone's asked us to go, just to bring the babies and to say, ‘Here are two lives. This is what we're talking about. When you destroy these embryos you're destroying a life,'" Robert Burnett said. EmmaLyn and Ian are products of embryo adoption, a growing industry that allows couples-most of them infertile-to adopt embryos left over from in vitro fertilization treatments. While many scientists want to use those embryos for research, others argue the embryos should be adopted and given a chance to be born. The Burnetts adopted their two children from an Illinois couple through Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program (www.Snowflakes.org) in California. Other embryo adoption programs include Embryos Alive (www.EmbryosAlive.com) in Ohio and National Embryo Donation Center (www.EmbryoDonation.org) in Tennessee. Robert, 43, and Anna, 41, turned to embryo adoption after six years of being unable to conceive either naturally or with the assistance of fertility treatments. In the election campaign they encouraged others to protect the other frozen embryos, like the ones that gave them a chance at parenthood. "They're not all destined for the trashcan," Robert Burnett said of frozen embryos. "A person's a person, no matter how small," they quote from Dr. Seuss. While supporters of embryonic stem cell research often argue there are "thousands" of extra frozen embryos available for research-the number 400,000 often is used-Burnett says the number is much smaller. According to a 2003 RAND study, only 2.3 percent (or 11,000) of the approximately 400,000 frozen embryos in America have been designated by couples for research. The overwhelming majority are set aside for "future attempts at pregnancy." "There's not that many embryos left," he said. "They think that there are 400,000 embryos, but there are not." Unfortunately, the amendment, which was approved, allows the creation of new embryos through "therapeutic cloning"-which the text of the amendment refers to as "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (SCNT)-the same method used to clone Dolly the sheep. The amendment requires the cloned embryos to be destroyed after 14 days. Therapeutic cloning, Burnett says, amounts to "creating a life solely for the purpose of destroying a life." "It's protecting and creating a whole new industry for the creation and the harvesting of eggs," Burnett said. "It's deceptive." The Burnetts are supporters of adult stem cell research, which harvests stem cells from umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat, and bone marrow and has produced treatments for 72 ailments, according to at least one estimate. Meanwhile, embryonic stem cell research has yet to produce any treatments. Recently, a California research institute set to receive $3 billion in funds released a draft report stating that any cures from embryonic stem cell research are 10 or more years away. The Burnetts' attempt to put a face on frozen embryos did not sway everyone, but they hope it changed a few minds. They have two small reasons it should. "It's been miraculous to see them grow," Robert Burnett said of EmmaLyn and Ian. "They both have their own personality and their own way of seeing the world. It's been a joy."
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