Cloning Around

An Ethically Flawed Quest Is Gaining Sympathy

WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 11, 2003 ( Scientists downplayed the cloning claim made at the end of December by Dr. Brigitte Boisselier. The director of Clonaid, a company formed by the Raelian sect to clone humans, first alleged that a U.S. couple was in possession of a cloned baby. A few days later she announced that a Dutch lesbian was the mother of another clone.

No scientific proof has been forthcoming for either clone. But that didn’t keep the ethical debate from bubbling. One camp argues for a division of cloning in two areas: reproductive and therapeutic. The former, exemplified in the Raelian situation, is condemned, but the latter is justified.

Philosopher Anthony Grayling, writing in the British daily Independent on Dec. 28, argued that therapeutic cloning “offers a powerful new weapon in the battle against human suffering, and promises powerful treatments for presently incurable and often devastating conditions.” The teacher at the University of London maintained that the cells produced by this type of cloning could then be used to provide treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The underlying ethical position in this argument — that the end (helping the sick) justifies the means (cloning) — was more explicit in a Jan. 2 article in the New York Times. Gregory Kaebnick, a research associate at The Hastings Center, a research institute in bioethics, feared that the public’s failure to distinguish between the two types of cloning would lead to a backlash against all cloning.

Both reproductive and therapeutic cloning “at certain stages, employ the same laboratory techniques,” admitted Kaebnick. But, he argued, “they follow different paths and have different outcomes.” His conclusion: “In this case, it is outcomes, not laboratory techniques, that matter.”

Brave new thinking

Another category of arguments centers on the defense of cloning as part of scientific progress. Opposition to cloning is thus seen as anti-scientific and even irresponsible, particularly if it is religious in nature. This was explained by Colin Honey, applied ethicist at the Von Hugel Institute of Cambridge University, and a minister of the Uniting Church of Australia, in the pages of Melbourne’s Age newspaper on Jan. 1.

“Whenever a new possibility comes along we tend to oppose it,” noted Honey. Just as in-vitro fertilization was opposed a few years ago, he argued, so now cloning is seen as negative. But now IVF is widely accepted, he maintained. “What at first seems unthinkable might turn out to be a blessing for some or a possibility for many,” Honey argued. The same could happen with reproductive cloning, he concluded.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen already seems to be a believer in cloning. In an article Jan. 2 he dismissed the arguments of a “whole bunch of politicians, religious leaders and conservative intellectuals who would, if they could, close the spigot on cloning and stop it cold.”

Cohen argued that while critics of cloning say it is unethical, this is something that “merely gets asserted, never proved.” What’s needed now, according to Cohen, is “some brave, new thinking.” He added: “Terms like ‘ethical’ or ‘human dignity’ simply cloud the debate.”

Therapeutic cloning “holds great promise,” and even reproductive cloning “could have its uses,” Cohen opined. “We cannot permit either our repugnance for a weird cult or our fear of the different to produce a retreat from a knowledge that is almost certain to be used anyway and that — just maybe — could save or enrich lives. Now that would be unethical.”

Disingenuous euphemisms

Just how valid is the distinction between reproductive and therapeutic cloning? David Prentice, a life sciences professor at Indiana State University, addressed this in an article placed on the Family Research Council Web site, titled “Under the Microscope: A Scientific Look at Cloning.”

He observed: “All human cloning is reproductive, in that it creates — reproduces — a new developing human intended to be virtually identical to the cloned subject.” The same techniques are used, and the cloned embryos are the same, whatever their fate. So, “disingenuous euphemisms to describe a cloned embryo as something other than an embryo are not scientific,” argued Prentice.

He also objected to the use of the term therapeutic. “In medical ethics, ‘therapeutic research’ is defined as research that could provide therapeutic benefit to the individual subjected to research risks,” explained Prentice. But with “therapeutic cloning” the new human life is “specifically created in order to be destroyed as a source of tissue.” Whatever the use to which it is put, the technique is certainly not therapeutic for the embryo.

Other objections to cloning relate to the danger of deformations in the new individuals, and the immense waste of life involved by the creating of large numbers of embryos. David Stevens, executive director of the 17,000-member Christian Medical Association, pointed out in a Dec. 27 press release: “With the high rate of death and deformity experienced in animal cloning and presumably applied to humans as well, even to experiment with human cloning shows a horrible disregard for the value of human life.”

The Vatican also highlighted this aspect of the cloning debate. “The announcement in itself is an expression of a brutal mentality, devoid of any ethical and human consideration,” declared a statement released by Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the Associated Press reported Dec. 28.

Ends and means

And what about justifying cloning for the good it will do the sick? The Pope examined this in his encyclical “Veritatis Splendor.” In No. 74, John Paul II noted that in judging the rectitude of an act a number of factors come into play: the intention of a person, the circumstances surrounding it, and the consequences of the act.

The encyclical warns that it is a mistake to judge the morality of an act by merely focusing on the consequences of doing something, or of just trying to achieve the “greater good” or “lesser evil” in a particular situation.

The Pope pointed out in No. 80 that some acts “radically contradict the good of the person.” These acts are always morally evil, independently of the intentions behind them or the circumstances surrounding them.

The Second Vatican Council pastoral constitution “Gaudium et Spes,” observed John Paul II, stipulated that among this class of acts are included “whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person.”

Applying this respect for human life in the field of bioethics, the Holy Father in his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” commented: “The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person. And all the more so in the case of weak and defenseless human beings, who find their ultimate defense against the arrogance and caprice of others only in the absolute binding force of God’s commandment” (No. 57).

“The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end,” stated the Pope. Exploiting human embryos as biological material, or to provide organs or tissue in the treatment of certain diseases, “constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act,” warns the encyclical in No. 63. Care for the sick can’t come at the expense of innocent life.

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