e-mail us

Special Section: Human Destiny

Many oppose human cloning


Ninety-six identical twins working ninety-six identical machines!” The voice was almost tremulous with enthusiasm. “You really know where you are. For the first time in history.” He quoted the planetary motto. “Community, Identity, Stability.” Grand words. “If we could bokanovskify indefinitely the whole problem would be solved.”

Solved by standard Gammas, unvarying Deltas, uniform Epsilons. Millions of identical twins. The principle of mass production at last applied to biology.
--Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Cloning humans hasn’t happened yet, but the idea of it is in the air. Most scientists and ethicists agree that it’s just a matter of time.

Lee M. Silver, biologist at Princeton University and author of Remaking Eden, predicts that the first cloned human will quietly make its way into the population, sneaking in when no one is looking.

“Those who want to clone themselves or their children will not be impeded by governmental laws or regulations,” he wrote. “The marketplace -- not government or society -- will control cloning. And if cloning is banned in one place, it will be made available somewhere else.”

Silver develops the following scenario: A decisive career woman named Jennifer decides at age 35 that something is missing from her life. That something is a child. She has no desire to marry, nor does she want to introduce other genetic material and its possible risks into the fertilization process. Although cloning is illegal in the United States, she travels to a Caribbean island where it is not.

The clinic harvests a dozen of Jennifer’s unfertilized eggs, removes the nuclei, and fuses them with donor cells taken from inside her mouth. Two embryos are transferred to her womb.

Back in New York, Jennifer learns that one of the embryos has implanted. At term, Jennifer gives birth to Rachel, a child who is genetically her twin sister. Jennifer tells no one, including the gynecologist who delivers Rachel, that Rachel is a clone. She does tell Rachel later, after she is grown, but like children born of in vitro fertilization, the news is not unsettling to her. Like the mother who provided Rachel with genes and maternal influence, Rachel is a confident person with a well-developed sense of herself.

There are a couple of ways to produce human clones. One is simply forced twinning: to divide an early embryo, producing two genetically identical human beings where there otherwise would have been one. Generally, though, when scientists and ethicists speak of cloning humans, they are talking about the asexual process that produced Dolly: replicating a human being (asexually) by stripping an unfertilized egg of its nucleus, thus removing its genetic material, and fusing it with an adult human cell.

One of the major technical advances in the cloning of Dolly, the famous sheep born in Scotland in 1997, was getting an adult cell, which had followed biological instructions to perform a specific adult role, to despecialize and perform as a totipotent embryonic cell. A totipotent cell is one that is capable of producing a full human being.

Many non-scientists assume that cloning humans will be too difficult and risky a process to attempt on humans. But Silver challenges the “muddled thinking” behind such arguments. Despite early hurdles, experimentation with cloning is moving ahead.

In early October, for instance, a dozen cloned Holsteins were introduced at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis. The reaction was curiosity more than shock. “We just wanted people to realize that [cloning] was moving very rapidly from science to a commercial technology,” Michael Bishop, vice president of research for De Forest biotechnology company, told a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We want to show that [the calves] are normal, healthy and growing, and there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Korean researchers halt work

Nearly a year ago, in mid-December, a team of South Korean researchers claimed, without producing scientific evidence, to have created a human embryo by cloning, using a donor cell from a 30-year-old woman. In compliance with a national ban on research with embryos that are more fully developed, the Korean researchers said they had halted their experiment after the embryo divided twice, into a total of four cells. Apart from implications for human reproduction, the cloning of Dolly represented a breakthrough that will play a key role in revolutionizing medicine. The ability to make an adult cell perform like an embryonic cell is a boon, for instance, for stem cell research. Biologists are working to get stem cells from adult human bodies to de-specialize so that they can produce tissues useful in healing various parts of the body.

Generally, though, cloning is thought of less in terms of what good might come of the process and more in terms of what Catholic theologian Thomas A. Shannon describes as “ethics hysteria.”

Among the nightmarish possibilities that have been suggested, Leon Kass of the American Enterprise Institute said in Ethics of Human Cloning that celebrities could market their DNA for clones just as they now market autographs. Theoretically, too, since it takes only one cell to start the process, someone, perhaps a celebrity, could be cloned without her consent.

Cloning, more than any other scientific procedure in biotechnology, raises the specter of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Some scientists, ethicists and theologians, though, willing to entertain cloning’s potential, if limited, usefulness, suggest that it might serve to produce children for infertile couples or for couples who wanted to replace a lost child with her genetic twin. Cloning a person might, theoretically, also provide a compatible source of bone marrow or organs to help a sick sibling. Cloning could also serve to allow gay or lesbian couples to reproduce. In the case of lesbians particularly, couples could reproduce using a donor cell from one woman and an egg from the other.

Late last year, a British government advisory board said cloning human cells should be legal where the goal is providing medical treatment for other people.

But just because human beings can be cloned, should they be? Even if some good arguments could be developed for giving it a role in human reproduction, are the benefits worth the risks? Many theologians, ethicists and religious leaders, though certainly not all, oppose cloning humans. Some are concerned about potential effects on the family. Some worry about the potential for making commodities of children; others are concerned about creating children to fill predetermined roles, such as a gifted athlete or scholar, based on talents of the cell donor.

Many scientists and ethicists caution, too, against “genetic determinism,” pointing out that environmental factors play a critical role in shaping human development. Michael Jordan’s clone, lacking the same drive and training, might not be a basketball star.

The Vatican opposes cloning humans, in part, because it is a means of reproduction that, like in vitro fertilization, does not derive directly from sexual intercourse between a married man and woman. In fact, more than any other reproductive technology, cloning threatens to sever the link between sex, marriage and reproduction, and to render the male role in reproduction obsolete.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, a Catholic theologian from Boston College, told a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “My feminist instincts are at one level attracted to this possibility. But the bottom line is that I am far from sure that [rendering] men unnecessary to the procreative process world work to the ultimate advantage of women. I am pretty sure it would not work to the advantage of human responsibility for the next generation.” Cahill told NCR that she favors a permanent ban on human cloning.

The Pontifical Academy for Life, in a document titled “Reflections on Cloning,” said that human cloning “risks being the tragic parody of God’s omnipotence.” The document was released last year.

“Human cloning belongs to the eugenics project and is thus subject to all the ethical and juridical observations that have amply condemned it. ... The ‘human cloning’ project represents the terrible aberration to which value-free science is driven and is a sign of the profound malaise of our civilization, which looks to science, technology and the ‘quality of life’ as surrogates for the meaning of life and its salvation.”

Pope John Paul II strongly condemned human cloning in a message delivered Feb. 7, Italy’s pro-life day. He strongly supported a statement condemning human cloning as a method of human reproduction, saying that cloning represented an attack on biological individuality of the human person.

Money is the issue

The pope, in his Feb. 7 statement, also warned that the practice could be exploited economically.

That point is often overlooked by opponents of cloning, according to Gregory Pence, who teaches bioethics in the medical school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. “Looking back, everyone missed the real issue, which concerned money and the potential it causes for deception, fraud and greed,” he wrote in an article for Knight-Ridder last July.

“What we can predict for the future is that the money issues will be more important than the emotional ones.”

To opponents of abortion, though, including Catholic leaders, perhaps the worst possible outcome of human cloning would be the creation of human embryos for research -- a distinct scientific possibility that has been promoted by scientists and even some ethicists in connection with stem cell research.

The National Bioethics Advisory Commission, composed of an equal number of scientists and 50 non-scientists, proposed in 1997 that the government, while refusing to fund human cloning, would permit privately funded laboratories to conduct experiments with cloned embryos as long as they were not implanted in women’s wombs. The commission proposed a five-year moratorium on use of cloning to produce a child.

David M. Byers, director of U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on science and human values, described that rationale as based on a ‘create and kill’ mentality “that will cheapen society’s respect for life even further.”

Byers, writing in Religious Responses to Human Cloning, said the report suggests that “clones are fine as long as they are not implanted. How great a step is it then to say: ‘Clones are fine, why not implant them?’ ”

In fact, Silver thinks just such an attitude could well be the outcome of genetic profiling of embryos. He imagines a scenario such as this: Fertility clinics, using technology not yet developed, will someday be able to extract many more eggs from a woman’s body than is currently possible, he said in Remaking Eden. The eggs will be fertilized in vitro. Then the parents will select from the resulting embryos the one that has the genetic profile they like best. That embryo will be transferred to the womb -- but because transferred embryos often fail to implant and result in a successful pregnancy, the embryo will first be cloned. If implantation fails with the first embryo, or even the second, third or fourth, its clones will be standing by to take a turn.

The prospect of cloning humans has raised philosophical issues, questions about the nature of the human person. Some people have wondered, for instance, whether a cloned human being would have a soul, a concern that most theologians dismiss out of hand. If there were any doubt about that, they point out, the question should have been raised long ago, in cases of identical twins. A cloned human being, after all, would be nothing more genetically than a delayed twin.

Some theologians are, though, pondering more seriously whether DNA should be considered sacred. If a single cell can produce a human being, should it then have sacred rights?

Questions like that make some scientists nervous. Harold E. Varmus, director of the National Institutes for Health, has asked, “If we say any cell has the potential to be a human being, then every time you cut your finger, do you have to wear black?”

Catholic leaders are not surprised to find their concerns dismissed. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities warns that in the future, as pressure to experiment with cloning grows, cloning advocates and abortion advocates will join forces “and complain that ‘abortion politics’ is interfering with scientific research.”

Perhaps the most critical challenge for religious leaders in the years ahead, as the public debate over human cloning grows, is to keep abreast of scientific advances and to carefully evaluate the theological, moral and legal stakes.

In a recent article, Courtney S. Campbell, associate professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, urged religious leaders to develop positions that assess the religious ramifications of specific scientific proposals, making sure that their public statements are based in solid scientific research and information.

Campbell’s article analyzing the role of religion in scientific debates in relation to human cloning appeared in the September issue of Second Opinion, a publication of the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics, based in Chicago.

Noting that religious voices are often interpreted as a “problem” rather than as a contributor to public policy, Campbell stressed the importance of building credibility.

Religious positions “should be informed and literate about the scientific research under consideration, whether it be human cloning, or more recently, embryonic stem cell research,” he said. “A lack of scientific sensitivity inevitably undermines the credibility of a religious-based interpretation,” he said. A religious position that is predictably negative or glibly positive “will not do justice either to the specific public policy question or to its own religious tradition.”

James J. Walter, who holds the Austin and Ann O’Malley chair in bioethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, holds a similar view. Religious leaders and believers, when confronted with scientific developments that are “ambiguous morally and theologically,” should be “careful but not wary, hopeful but not wide-eyed,” he said, “assessing developments as they come forward.”

“The problem is, they are coming so quickly that we can’t sort through them that fast,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999