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The Ethics of Therapeutic Cloning


[1] The recent announcement by Advance Cell Technology seems to confirm what most people thought was sadly inevitable when almost five years ago a sheep named Dolly was created with cloning techniques. Cloning humans would be attempted, and it was. This effort - unremarkable as it was in its so-called success - is given the guise of justifiability by its defenders under an oxymoronic banner of "therapeutic cloning." But this cloning is not therapeutic, nor is it justifiable.

[2] Therapeutic cloning is the use of cloning techniques to develop therapies, rather than produce a baby. Its primary goal is to provide a source of embryonic stem (ES) cells, those rare but remarkable cells that could potentially be directed to develop into almost any kind of cell in the body. These cells might provide treatments for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and spinal cord injuries, for example. The advantage of using ES derived from cloning techniques as opposed to other embryos as a source of ES cells is derived from the fact that cells from cloning would be a genetic match with the person who donated the cells that were cloned, thereby eliminating potential problems with tissue rejection. In short, if you need cells to treat what ails you, create an embryonic clone of yourself, extract the ES cells, and let medical science take care of the rest.

[3] In itself, the issue of embryonic stem cell research is controversial for a host of reasons. The major ethical stumbling block is that extracting ES cells kills embryos (or, more accurately, four-to-six-day-old pre-embryos). As the abortion debate has demonstrated, the issue of the moral status of human embryo is interminable - it will never likely reach resolution on rational grounds. Views on the moral status of the embryo span a spectrum. Human embryos are either mere tissue worthy of no moral respect, or they are worthy of some respect, or worthy of the same moral respect we accord the adult human being.

[4] In its social statement on abortion, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has stated that "Human life in all phases of its development is God-given and, therefore, has intrinsic value, worth, and dignity" (p. 2). The statement also implies, however, that moral concern and respect for the developing embryo increases with the progressive development of the embryo and subsequent fetus. The embryo warrants more moral respect than mere tissue, and this respect ought to increase with as the embryo/fetus develops. This position places the ELCA squarely in the troubled middle, needing to move from undefined, if not unknowable assumptions, to ethical arguments about use of embryos that balance respect for the embryo with potential benefits, to policy recommendations about uncertain outcomes.

[5] Despite such unsteady ethical ground, more confident ethical conclusions about the current state of affairs are possible. Even if one grants that certain limited ES cell research may be justifiable, such as using embryos destined for destruction from in vitro fertilization clinics or already-created ES cell lines, the use of cloning techniques is ethically more troublesome. First of all, cloned embryos are created merely for the purpose of research and ultimate destruction. Creating embryos merely as a means - for whatever laudable purpose - fails grant them any sort of respect. Only if we have truly subverted our Christian faith to a faith in medical progress and all its rituals and promises can we find a way to respect what we destroy as some kind of honorable sacrifice.

[6] Second, the "success" of cloning a human embryo to the six-cell stage has accomplished virtually nothing. Defenders might call it the necessary first step toward greater advances. But very little is known about embryonic stem cells. Talk of cures for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease rouses hope. More importantly, for researchers and biotechnology venture capitalists, such talk raises a wave of expectation and political pressure that places those with less enthusiastic stances in the position of appearing morally blameworthy for inhibiting progress against suffering. Nevertheless, if we are to stand for any form of moral respect for human pre-embryos, however modest, we must encourage the search for morally preferable alternatives to cloning, or even eliminate ES cell research altogether. Much more could be learned from other types of stem cells, animal studies, or types of research that would not require cloning or the destruction of embryos.

[7] Accompanying the wave of confidence that cloning for ES cells would yield tremendous progress is the inevitable assertion that policy lines could easily be drawn that would prevent reproductive cloning. But advances in the use of cloning techniques, even if only for potential therapeutic application, would lead science further down a path that would make cloning for reproductive purposes easier. As more studies are published illustrating successful cloning techniques, the reproductive option will be encouraged. Thus, the ethics of the two forms of cloning cannot be cleanly separated. And human reproductive cloning is morally wrong for many reasons.

[8] Advance Cell Technology might justify its very modest success in human cloning by the need to attract publicity and new dollars to its work. But this larger utilitarian purpose is not the ethic of the Church. However troubled we might remain in the middle of this debate, we can and should argue now that cloning human embryos is wrong, even under the guise of potential new therapies. We should not create human life for destruction. While we should support medical research generally, we should not immediately underwrite whatever latest announcement is made in the name of the relief of suffering, even at the risk of appearing Luddite.

[9] We ought to be willing to undertake the risks of this position because the Church will have lost all prophetic moral authority if it ignores the ethical cautions that our tradition and human history tell us are important to take. New powers are being assumed over life itself, new promises are being made in the name of progress, and issues of membership in the human community stand in tension with those powers and promises. Furthermore, we understand that life, suffering, and death are concepts relativized by news that is better than any announcement of medical progress, namely, the good news of the Gospel. We may yet see potential fulfilled that presses us to look for some least morally tragic way to use ES cells to relieve human suffering. But that choice has not yet come. The choice to reject human cloning is here, and we can do that now.



© December 2001
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 1, Issue 4