Stop Cloning Around - Part 1
This is the first of two articles, Dr John R. Ling, author of the highly-acclaimed book, Responding to the Culture of Death – A Primer of Bioethical Issues (2001, Day One, Epsom) explains what cloning is, and opens up some of the associated moral arguments. Part 2 will examine some of the legal, political and scientific debates surrounding human cloning.
The general public has a mawkish fascination with cloning, especially human cloning. On 25 February 1998, the Daily Mirror contained the headline, ‘Plans to Clone Elvis Presley from His Toenail.’ A group called ACE (Americans for Cloning Elvis) had gathered 3,000-plus signatures on a petition urging the use of Elvis’ DNA, to be obtained from one of his toenails collected by a fan from a hotel waste bin, to produce his double. In a poll the following year, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was voted as the most popular choice for cloning, closely followed by Michelle Pfeiffer!
However, the more serious aspects of cloning came to the world’s attention on 5 July 1996, when, in a shed just outside Edinburgh, a mother gave birth to a 6.6 kg offspring. It was a snow-white Finn-Dorset lamb called 6LL3, or more popularly, Dolly. She died on 14 February 2003.
Cloning is technically complex, but bioethically simple. There are two techniques. First, there is embryo splitting. This occurs naturally in the womb and produces monozygotic, or identical, twins. Embryo splitting can also be induced artificially in the laboratory. Thus, individual cells could be removed from an early human embryo, say, a sixteen-cell morula. These cells could then be cultured in the laboratory, biologically reprogrammed and stimulated to divide, and eventually they would result in identical embryos, or clones. Second, there is cell nuclear replacement (CNR). There is no natural equivalent to this. The nucleus, which contains the genetic material, is removed from a body cell, perhaps a skin or a liver cell, taken from the animal, or perhaps in the near future, the human patient, to be cloned. This nucleus is then transferred, as a replacement, into a donated ovum, from the same species, which is non-nucleated, that is, from which the nucleus has previously been excised. Again, culturing, reprogramming, and stimulation are required to produce an embryonic clone. And, because sperm are not needed in CNR, the technique could signal the end of men in human reproduction! CNR is not new, it has been used for the last fifty years to, for example, clone frogs from tadpole cells. However, what was significant about Dolly was that she was the first mammal to be cloned by CNR using an adult cell from another animal, namely, an udder cell from a six-year-old sheep. Even so, the technique is far from efficient because 277 reconstructed sheep embryos were produced at the Roslin Institute by Professor Wilmut and his team, of which only 13 survived and of these, which were transferred to host wombs, only one, Dolly, went to term.
There are two purposes for cloning, and specifically human cloning. And it makes no difference whether the embryos are obtained from embryo splitting or from CNR, or even as ‘spare’ embryos from IVF treatments. First, there is therapeutic cloning. The cells of fertilized ova, namely, zygotes, as well as those of early embryos, have a most amazing property - in the word used in the 1984 Warnock Report (p. 58), they are ‘totipotential’. That is, these cells, commonly known as stem cells, have the ability to multiply and to develop into all the 100 or so different types of cells required for the human body; perhaps they will become brain, eye, bone, spleen, or fingernails. Therapeutic cloning would artificially harness this natural property of stem cells. It would take cells, say skin cells, from a human patient, and clone them by CNR to produce human embryos. These embryos’ stem cells would then be collected - a process that inevitably destroys the embryos. These stem cells would then be tweaked to produce other types of cell, perhaps nerve cells, or to regenerate spare tissues, perhaps cardiac muscles, or even bodily parts, perhaps a hip joint. The much-heralded motive behind this therapeutic cloning is that the cells produced could be used to replace a patient’s diseased, or damaged cells and thus conquer diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, leukaemia, and diabetes.
Second, there is reproductive cloning. Today this is used for farm animals such as, sheep, pigs and calves. However, the fear is that it may be used tomorrow for humans. Human reproductive cloning is currently illegal in the UK, but the required embryos could still be legally prepared here and transported to a country where reproductive cloning is not illegal. Already people are interested in this form of cloning for several, typically selfish, reasons. Copying themselves, they say, would ensure their own ‘immortality’. Families may wish to replace a dead loved one, or bereaved parents may wish to replace a ‘lost’ child. Infertile couples could use the technique to have children, who would be genetically linked to them, instead of using donated gametes. Lesbian couples could transfer genetic material from one woman to the other’s ovum; the women would then both be biological mothers to the child.
Such human cloning should make us nervous. Its ethics tend to be totally utilitarian and utterly self-serving. It is part of the scientific imperative: ‘We have the technology, so why not use it?’ But cloning could also engender significant class, economic, and power differences within our society. It could create an underclass of people, who are unable to enhance or choose their offsprings’ genes, and so they would become more and more genetically unattractive. These are the typical, unsavoury outcomes of any such selective breeding programmes, or what is plainly known as, old-fashioned eugenics.
But our primary objection to therapeutic and reproductive cloning must be that both result in the exploitation and the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Indeed, therapeutic cloning is now sometimes referred to as sacrificial cloning. Reproductive cloning is so inefficient that many embryos are inevitably destroyed in its pursuit. Furthermore, it is only the purpose that distinguishes therapeutic from reproductive cloning - the former may legally continue for up to fourteen days on the researcher’s laboratory bench, the latter up to nine months in the womb of a surrogate mother.
It is always wrong to use any human life as a
means to an end – that is utilitarianism. It is not compatible with Christian
bioethics. It is that ‘culture of death’ again.