As the science and technology of biomedicine rapidly advances, it poses major ethical issues on which people are seriously divided. The argument in favor of proceeding with research at unrestrained pace is mainly advocated by scientists and medical experts who would like to see some fantastic therapeutic benefits of 21st century know-how come to daylight. On the other side of the debate are people, sometimes led by religious groups, who are concerned we may going too far too fast, both in terms of research and the eventual possible widespread use of these technologies.
However, the issue is much more entangled and the division of opinion gets more accentuated in regard to genetic engineering than cloning and stem cell research. There seems to be a fair degree of consensus that if cloning technology research advances our ability to heal humans with greater success, it ought to be pursued. Such research would not require or encourage the destruction of life in the process, though there is the ethical conundrum of destruction of embryos here.
Most people would at the same time agree that cloning research must not be pursued indiscriminately. We must be careful to distinguish between cloning for therapeutic purposes – which ought to be pursued – and cloning for reproductive purposes – which ought to be put under the lid for the fear of unleashing pure chaos. Thus, the general consensus seems to be that this research must be conducted under strict guidelines and with strict limitations to ensure that the research is indeed serving therapeutic purposes (Rantala & Milgram 1999).
The difference between therapeutic cloning using embryonic stem cells and reproductive cloning is the distinction between creating cloned body tissue or organs for therapeutic purposes and creating cloned human beings. Reproductive cloning is generally viewed as morally abhorrent because it is seen as unnatural and a “commodification” of human life, and it captures public fears about the power of science to pursue a eugenic agenda.
When governmental organizations of today debate ban on human cloning, the main issue in such debates would be whether to ban outright all forms of embryo cloning, which the majority of countries seem to support, or to permit the cloning of embryos for research purposes (therapeutic cloning) while outlawing human reproductive cloning (Kunich, 2003). 2. A historical perspective on the cloning debate In August of 1975, Dr. John Gurdon, a British scientist, reported the first successful cloning of frogs using nuclei from adult frogs transplanted into enucleated eggs.
This success generated great enthusiasm among scientists for developing techniques for cloning animals. Over the next two decades the initial enthusiasm greatly declined because not only did the cloned frogs never develop into adult frogs, but further experiments seemed to indicated that cloning a mammal from either adult or fetal tissue might never be possible. As scientific interest in cloning waned, so did the apparent need for extensive ethical discussion concerning the possibilities of human cloning.
On February 22, 1997, Dr. Ian Wilmut and his team of researchers from the Roslin Institute in Scotland regenerated scientific enthusiasm for animal cloning with their announcement of the successful cloning of a sheep. Around this time, the media and public reignited speculation about human cloning and its moral implications. In the wake of this renewed interest in human cloning came various proposals concerning what could, might, and should be done with regard to applying this new cloning technique to human beings.
The paper published by Wilmut et al. in the journal Nature demonstrated that it was now possible to use cells from the differentiated tissue of an adult mammal to produce a clone of apparently normal characteristics. Thus, although there had been several previous waves of interest in cloning, the cloning of Dolly in 1997 unleashed a storm of new controversy (Rantala & Milgram, 1999). The cloning of Dolly has been rightly heralded as a major breakthrough in science.
However, there still remain many obstacles to the application of this technology in other mammalian species, and even to its efficient use in sheep. In fact, there are characteristics of sheep embryological development that may account for the success of cloning an adult sheep while similar attempts in cattle, pigs, and mice have so far been unsuccessful, even over a decade later. 3. The controversy of embryonic manipulation Stem cell therapies and cloning involve the manipulation of human embryonic cells.
Therapeutic cloning, while promising fantastic medical benefits, is problematic on the grounds that an embryo is brought into being for a short time (up to five to seven days gestation) in order to serve as a source of tissues and cell lines. This process, to many religious people, would be tantamount to creating a human being with the explicit intention of destroying it in order enhance the life of another individual or group of individuals. Since we would not do this with children or adults we should not do it with five-to-seven-day old embryos (blastocytes), they content.
Such a strong religious stance is underpinned by a serious consideration of the biological nature and the moral status of the early embryo (Jori 2002). There are many groups today who clamor to put an end to all research and therapy involving embryos. Some of the most hotly debated ethical issues pertaining to the arena of cloning and genetic engineering appear to be related to the concept of personhood, and when, or if, the embryo or the fetus becomes a person. The church holds that an embryo must be treated as a person with potential, than merely as a potential person (Flaman 2002).
More liberal-minded people would agree that a human embryo represents a human child as much as a human child represents a fully-grown human being, inasmuch as one holds the potential of the other. However, going by the same logic, they might point out, that a sperm cell and an ovum would represent an embryo, each in their own right. A sperm cell is a direct progenitor of the embryo as is an ovum. If the origin of a human being can be traced to an embryo, with modern technology it can as well be traced back to a very specific individual spermatozoon.
Yet, millions of such spermatozoa naturally go wasted in a single ejaculation, and ova too go down the drain routinely in the natural course of a woman’s menstruation. No one objects or mourns for that loss; each one of the spermatozoa or ova had a clear potential to become a fully-grown human being (Reiss & Straughan 1996). Thus, liberal minded people would hold the view that conception/fertilization is not a moment but a process, and the early development does not indicate true individuality in any sense of the word.
However, the theological argument of the church continues to insist that, on fertilization, an embryo is endowed with a soul, an individuality, and a moral sanctity which is not present in sperm and egg cells that go into making it (Bova 2000). The church’s position is, however, undermined by the fact that today it is possible to create an embryo by a means other than fertilization, thorough somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). There is also a possibility for any cell of the body, following manipulation, to give rise to a new individual (Kunich 2003).
This clearly amounts to a breaking down of the distinction between embryonic and other cells (somatic or body cells). Therefore, the moral objections raised by the church and other religious groups against all use of embryos for the purposes of research and therapy do not seem to be valid. The promise of embryo research is too real to ignore any longer by sticking to conservative attitudes that stand in the face of pragmatism (Kahn 1999). 4. The nightmares of reproductive cloning As of today, the majority of common people instinctively associate cloning to reproductive cloning, not to therapeutic cloning.
In the Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, “Major instrument of social stability” is the name given to the technique of genetic human embryo manipulation. In the novel, the technique is used to create harmonious labor squads of dozens of twins whose intelligence varies according to the work assigned to them. Biological processes of genetic selection and perinatal engineering are used in conjunction with methods of educational conditioning to produce squads of identical men, marching with empty eyes into a factory (Jori, 2002).
Thankfully, it was just a fiction. Such imagined, and many more unimaginable, nightmares can nevertheless become living realities if research into cloning and genetic engineering is allowed unhampered. The eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, prevalent in the United States and in Nazi Germany, sought to promote traits that proponents felt were desirable to society, while weeding out what they considered undesirable (Frankel & Chapman 2000). At that time, there was no genetic engineering, of course, it was more of a social engineering.
However, when genetic engineering is combined with social engineering, the abuse of political and military power can go out of bounds. If Adolf Hitler had his way with his biological experimentation and eugenic ambitions, such a situation as portrayed in The Brave New World could have very likely translated into a reality. This is just one example of the evil and chaotic scenarios possible, should reproductive cloning in human beings become feasible and easily available.
Perhaps the only valid argument in favor of human reproductive cloning seems to be in the context of allaying the grief of the loss of a loved one. For example, if a young daughter of some couple were to die in an accident, they might wish to have her back at least in a cloned form. This would indeed seem a benign use of cloning technology, harming none and bring comfort and solace to grief-struck people. However, when we consider such a possibility in a wider context, it raises profound ethical, social and psychological dilemmas.
Moreover, once reproductive cloning were to be allowed to be used even if only in certain acceptable scenarios, there would be no way to hold it back from being used for objectionable and nefarious purposes. The ‘slippery slope’ is a common, and most potent, argument advocated against all technologies related to genetic engineering (Bova 2000). I believe that in a world where there is no sorrow, happiness would have no meaning too. Where there is no experience of disease, the joy and vitality of vibrant health cannot be appreciated. In a world where there is no death, life itself would have no meaning.
The need for contrasts between dualities is perhaps the single-most important truth of human existence. Therefore, simply to push medical science to its very logical conclusion, and so overcome all disease, pain and even death would be self-defeating. It is true that there lies a great life-saving potential in the results that can come from cloning research. On the other hand, we must be vigilant against any erosion of the value that our culture accords to human life, and ultimately, guard against the disappearance of the meaning of human life itself.