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Therapeutic Cloning and Perplexity

 
 

[1] What do I think about the first successful (albeit short-lived) cloning of human embryos for the purpose of deriving stem cells? Readers with a low tolerance for ambivalence are advised to 'quit' now because my answer will neither condemn nor celebrate the news from Worcester. At the risk of making matters worse I must confess that I have been thinking about cloning off and on (mostly 'off' to be sure) for thirty years - certainly long enough to have formulated a clear opinion one way or the other. But I'm perplexed and, if I may presume upon your indulgence, I'll try to explain.

[2] My first encounter with cloning came in a freshman biology class in 1971 where we studied the method by which the Cambridge biologist J. B. Gurdon had recently produced his famous frog. I've never forgotten the last lecture of the course, when the professor told us that scientists were making rapid progress in research of enormous consequence for human dignity, ethical values and society. It was up to philosophers, theologians, artists and poets, and all of us as citizens, he said, to attend to these developments and consider what might be at stake. It is the business of science to expand our knowledge but it is everyone's business to evaluate the uses to which that knowledge could be put. Across campus in my religion course Paul Ramsey was expostulating on the question "Shall We Clone a Man?" from his 1970 book Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control. And, of course, his answer was an emphatic "NO." Some of his arguments were distinctly Christian, others were broadly humanistic and all of them seemed to me compelling at the time. They still do.

[3] In my own bioethics classes, I always assign readings by Gilbert Meilaender and Leon Kass who have over the years eloquently and effectively pressed both lines of Ramey's argument. Vigilant defenders of human dignity, they counsel us to resist the temptation to succumb to technological and utilitarian imperatives. In the face of our Promethean aspirations, they remind us that we are embodied, finite creatures who would do well to respect limits; the transgression of which we may come to bitterly regret. I share these concerns and try to get my students to take them seriously even if, as is often the case, they ultimately disagree.

[4] All of this is to say, I have a strong inclination to join the chorus of critics who not only judge all forms of human cloning to be morally unjustifiable but also advocate a legal ban. But I can't, because the voices of Ramsey, Meilaender and Kass are not the only ones resonating in my mind. There are others. They belong to people in my family, my college, my parish, my community, who suffer from diabetes, Parkinson's, paralyzing spinal cord injuries and other conditions that might one day become treatable using cloned stem cells. Perhaps you've heard them too. When I try to imagine myself explaining to them that "Our high moral regard for one to two week old embryos prevents us from pursuing promising medical research that might lead eventually to effective therapies" I can't. Can you?

[5] Yes, the benefits are hypothetical. But their suffering is very real. And yes, there may be other equally promising lines of research that are less problematic morally in that they do not require the creation, use and destruction of human embryos. We should investigate them as well. Perhaps we should even give them priority. But should we foreclose the possibility of therapeutic cloning before we have been able even to assess its promise?

[6] The controversy surrounding therapeutic cloning boils down to two issues. First, there is the fundamental and all too familiar question of the moral status of the early embryo. Is it the moral equal of you or me? Is it simply microscopic matter to be handled in whatever way suits our purposes? Or perhaps it's something in between; not nothing yet not one of us. Some of us consider the early embryo a full member of our moral community on the basis of religious conviction or a secular analogue. Few, if any, would say it's just "stuff." Some of us reckon that the embryo-fetus gains moral standing as it develops. The moral significance of various developmental stages (individuation, implantation, integration of the nervous system, viability, birth, etc.) has been the subject of much debate.

[7] In the context of the present discussion of therapeutic cloning to derive stem cells, it seems important to remember that we are talking about embryos in first few days of their development. We allow embryos to be created, screened and frozen in infertility treatment programs. And the law allows women to abort fetuses long after the point at which stem cells would be collected in therapeutic cloning research. Of course, these facts do not prove that cloning embryos is morally justifiable. They aren't even an argument. But they do suggest that in other contexts there is no political-legal consensus that human embryos are inviolable. That being the case, should therapeutic cloning be prohibited?

[8] The second issue is the possible (probable?) slippery slope from therapeutic to reproductive cloning. Reproductive cloning has very few advocates (and I am not one of them). Even Advanced Cell Technology, the company that cloned the embryos, is said to favor criminalization of reproductive cloning at the present time. OK, but what about in the future? Would the acceptance of therapeutic cloning today make it more likely that we will approve reproductive cloning tomorrow? Leon Kass believes it's not only likely but virtually certain. It's just wishful thinking to believe that a line could be drawn and held between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. If we do not wish to have the latter, we'd better not countenance the former. It's that simple. Or is it?

[9] He may be right. I can not say he's wrong. But slippery slope arguments are slippery things. Not only are they speculative but they seem to deny the possibility that reason and good will can make moral distinctions and stand by them. Should we forego the possible benefits of a new technology because we fear we won't be able to control it? To say "yes" seems too pessimistic. To say "no problem" seems too optimistic. Doubtless, there is good reason for extreme caution. Prudence dictates regulation and oversight. But prohibition? Even if it were possible, would it be desirable? Again, the voices.

Bibliography

Leon Kass, "The Wisdom of Repugnance: Why We Should Ban The Cloning of
Humans," New Republic, Vol. 2 (June 1997), pp. 17-26.

Gilbert Meilaender, "Begetting and Cloning," First Things, Vol. 74 (June-July 1997),
pp. 41-43.

Paul Ramsey, Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control, New Haven, Yale
University Press, 1970.

 

 

 

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