LONDON, FEB. 12, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority has given the go-ahead for the cloning of human embryos. BBC reported Tuesday that the creator of Dolly the sheep, Ian Wilmut, obtained a license to clone embryos in order to study motor neurone disease (MND). This is the second time the fertilization authority has given approval for human cloning since it was made legal in the United Kingdom in 2001.
Wilmut, together with researchers from Kings College London, plans to clone embryos that have the disease in order to study how it develops in the early stages, and to try out new drugs to see how they work. Some patient groups, including the MND Association, have supported the proposal.
Not everyone welcomed the announcement, however. In a press release Tuesday from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, the group’s political secretary, Anthony Ozimic, assailed Wilmut’s research. “Any ‘license to clone and kill’ strikes at the very heart our society’s basic rule for living together in peace, which is ‘do not kill the innocent,’ because the cloning process kills many embryonic human children at their most vulnerable stage of life,” Ozimic said. “All of those killed are unique, never-to-be-replaced, totally innocent human individuals.”
Another press release, issued by Julia Millington, political director of the ProLife Alliance, stated: “All human cloning is intrinsically wrong and should be outlawed. However, the creation of cloned human embryos destined for experimentation and subsequent destruction is particularly abhorrent.”
Moreover, Millington questioned the approval to use embryos at a time when much greater scientific progress is being reported using ethically acceptable adult stem cells, and cells taken from the umbilical cord of newborn babies.
In the United States, meanwhile, the Christian Medical Association also took Wilmut’s plan to task. In a Tuesday press release, David Stevens, executive director of the 17,000-member association, said: “It’s dressing a wolf in sheep’s clothing to claim that you’re somehow helping humanity when in fact you’re killing living human beings.” He continued: “So-called therapeutic cloning is hardly therapeutic for the living human subjects destroyed in the process.”
There was bad news for embryos in Spain, too. On Tuesday, Health Minister Elena Salgado announced a new proposal to govern in vitro fertilization. The measure could be in force by year-end, and would represent a substantial relaxation of the norms approved by the previous government in 2003, the Spanish daily ABC reported Wednesday.
Among the changes announced by Salgado would be one that allows parents to choose embryos that can help to cure existing children, by using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The legislation would prohibit cloning for reproductive purposes, but is silent as to whether it will be allowed for research purposes.
The legislation would also allow research on the “leftover” embryos from IVF treatments. This would be a change from the 2003 legislation which only permitted research with those embryos frozen at the time the law came into force.
Coincidentally, this past Tuesday also saw the publication of an article by Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, on questions related to the human embryo. Writing in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Bishop Sgreccia noted that many researchers justify using an embryo during the first days of life by denying it has reached a stage when it is truly human. Thus, during the first 14 days, the researchers often refer to the “pre-embryo” stage of development.
The Vatican official, however, observed that from a purely scientific point of view it is perfectly evident that from the moment the ova is fertilized by the spermatozoa, there is a distinct form of life with its own genetic identity and biological unity. Moreover, after the initial fertilization there is no subsequent qualitative change that affects the process of development of the new life.
Bishop Sgreccia added that from the moral viewpoint it is sufficient to merely suspect the possibility that in the embryo we find a human person, in order to justify prohibiting its use in scientific research. Thus the Church has insisted on an absolute respect for life right from the moment of conception.
Struggling to define life
The human status of the embryo is also being debated in legal tribunals, with some positive results. Last week a Cook County judge in the state of Illinois allowed a Chicago couple to sue a fertility clinic that destroyed one of their embryos. A Feb. 5 report in the Chicago Sun-Times explained that Alison Miller and Todd Parrish had gone to the Center for Human Reproduction for help in conceiving a child, but that one of the fertilized ova was discarded in an error by a clinic worker.
In his decision, Judge Jeffrey Lawrence II said “a pre-embryo is a ‘human being’ … whether or not it is implanted in its mother’s womb.” As a result, the couple may seek the same compensation awarded to other parents whose children are killed. Commentators noted that the judgment will almost certainly be appealed.
Another recent legal case involving unborn life was that of the murder of Laci Peterson, who was pregnant when her husband killed her. The lengthy legal process finished last November, when Scott Peterson was declared guilty by the jury. The jury convicted Peterson of first-degree murder of his wife and second-degree murder of his 8-month-old unborn son.
In an article published Nov. 13 by the Christian Post, an analyst for Focus on the Family, Carrie Gordon Earll, explained that “the murder conviction of Scott Peterson in the death of his wife and pre-born son, Conner, is further evidence of the growing shift in U.S. law regarding protection for all human life, including young humans who still reside in their mother’s wombs.”
Earlier in the year, the California Supreme Court had ruled that a 1970 state law could be used to charge assailants with the death of a fetus when a pregnant woman is attacked. Charges regarding the murder of the fetus can be brought even if the aggressor did not know the victim was pregnant, the Los Angeles Times reported April 6.
Another victory, albeit limited, for the embryo came with the decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court. The court ruled that murder charges can be brought if the fetus at the time it was killed would have been viable outside the mother’s womb. The court thus overturned a 21-year-old decision that had barred homicide charges against someone accused of killing a fetus, according to a report June 18 in the Courier-Journal newspaper of Louisville.
With its decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court defined a fetus as a person at the point of viability. The ruling did not however decide the constitutionality of the new “fetal homicide” law passed last year by the Kentucky Legislature. The law allows homicide charges to be brought when a fetus is killed — regardless of whether it is viable.
Another 2004 case saw Quenten Qortez Thompson convicted of feticide by a jury in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported June 11. Thompson was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide of Nicole Blake and first-degree homicide of an unborn child, under a 1998 law.
Meanwhile, during its first stages of development the embryo remains under threat from scientific researchers who seem to regard it as a source of spare parts.