Scientists recently announced that they had successfully cloned human embryos for the first time, using the same process that produced Dolly the sheep.
This news constitutes an ethical earthquake. Cloning is the essential technology in the development of a plethora of other unprecedented and morally dubious technologies—the genetic engineering of embryos, the creation of human/animal chimeras, the gestation of cloned fetuses in artificial wombs as a means of obtaining patient-compatible organs, and eventually, the birth of cloned babies.
But what, exactly, is meant by the term “human cloning”? There are several potential methods for cloning, such as embryo splitting. Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is the most common option. Here is how it works:
(a) First, take a skin or other cell and remove the nucleus;
(b) Next take an egg and remove its nucleus;
(c) Place the skin cell nucleus where the egg nucleus used to be;
(d) Stimulate with an electric current or other means
Once the SCNT process is completed, the cloning is over, resulting in a one-celled embryo, which will develop thereafter like an embryo created through fertilization. This is sometimes called asexual reproduction because it is accomplished without using sperm and egg.
The question next becomes what to do with the nascent human life thereby created. If the cloned embryo is destroyed for stem cells or otherwise used in experiments, it is often called “therapeutic cloning.” If the embryo is implanted in a uterus for gestation and birth, it is often called “reproductive cloning.” But, it is important to re-emphasize, these distinctions involve uses made of the cloned embryo, not the actual act of cloning.
Some worry most about the eventual birth of a cloned baby—an event that is still a long way off. But therapeutic cloning already poses an acute threat to human dignity. As Charles Krauthammer, who served on George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, warned in the New Republic in 2002, creating cloned embryos for research—now accomplished—is “dangerous” because it reduces the cloned embryo to “mere thingness,” justifying “the most ruthless exploitation.” He went on to say:
It is the ultimate in desensitization . . . The problem, one could almost say, is not what cloning does to the embryo, but what it does to us . . . Creating a human embryo just so it can be used and then destroyed undermines the very foundation of the moral prudence that informs the entire enterprise of genetic research: the idea that, while a human embryo may not be a person, it is not nothing. Because if it is nothing, then everything is permitted. And if everything is permitted, then there are no fences, no safeguards, no bottom.
The only effective preventative is to enact a comprehensive legal ban on human SCNT, not just the uses to which a cloned embryo may be put. Contrary to what the science intelligentsia, the biotechnology industry, and the mainstream media might claim, banning human SCNT is a step that is widely supported internationally. Indeed, in 2005, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted overwhelmingly in support of a non-binding resolution calling upon member states “to prohibit all forms of human cloning.”
The devil will be found in how the term “cloning” is defined. In particular, we should be on the lookout for phony bans that actually legalize the SCNT process using human DNA. For example, many proposals would only outlaw “reproductive cloning.” But as we have seen, such a “ban” would not outlaw cloning at all, merely one potential use that could be made of embryo made through cloning.
Outlawing human cloning would provide salutatory benefits. First, it would deprive cloning researchers of the funds to further perfect human cloning techniques. Outlawing human cloning would also be a clarion call to our scientists demanding that they stay within proper moral parameters as they serve society through the pursuit of knowledge. And it would protect women. Recall that human eggs are the essential ingredients in the cloning recipe. As I wrote here last month, the need for human eggs in cloning threatens a great “human egg rush.”
But retrieving human eggs can be very dangerous to women’s health and fecundity. Banning cloning can thus prevent the further objectification of the female biological function.
Finally, on a positive note, once human cloning becomes beyond the pale, we could begin to row in the direction of areas of biotechnology that are morally licit, freeing human and financial resources for the pursuit of the abundant avenues of moral and efficacious biotechnological research—such as adult stem cell research, genetically tailored chemotherapy, and other medical treatments.
We can achieve remarkable biotechnology breakthroughs in this century without surrendering our ethics. Outlawing human cloning is the essential progressive act.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.