Cloning embryos

Cloning and Human Embryos

Originally printed in the Marion Star on September 13, 2000

August 23rd, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published its final stem cell research guidelines. They allow federal funding for stem cell research using only “surplus” human embryos from fertility clinics. If Congress passes these guidelines, our tax dollars will fund research that requires the destruction of living human embryos.

The guidelines were released one week after the Donaldson Report to the British government which endorsed human cloning to produce stem cells. This process is called “therapeutic cloning,” unlike “reproductive cloning” which brought Dolly the sheep into being. The techniques are the same, but therapeutic cloning involves destroying the embryos after 14 days to prevent the development of cloned fetuses and babies.

Cloning has become increasingly routine with nonhuman species. With the technological barriers overcome, only ethical barriers to human cloning remain. These must be strengthened to withstand the force of the ‘technological imperative’-the notion that if we can do it, we should do it. The NIH guidelines got it right in refusing to fund human cloning. But they make it easier to move in that direction.

Stem cell research was named 1999’s Breakthrough of the Year by the prestigious journal, Science. Stem cells from embryos can develop into any of the more than two hundred types of human cells. Researchers hope stem cells will lead to treatments for many diseases. People with diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease might be given replacement cells that function normally. Cloning adds the advantage that the replacement cells would be genetically identical to the patient’s and would not be rejected. For reasons like these, some patient advocacy groups are vocal supporters of stem cell research, prominently led by actor Christopher Reeve.

The Donaldson Report’s endorsement of human cloning means human embryos will be deliberately made and then sacrificing them for the good of others. Human life will be treated as a commodity to be manufactured when needed, and destroyed for some ‘greater’ purpose. This utilitarian ethic justifies questionable means by their potentially beneficial results. It legitimizes treating some humans as means to the ends of others. History reveals that whenever society accepts such an ethic, the vulnerable and less powerful are subjected to injustice and violence.

The NIH guidelines don’t endorse human cloning, but promote the same values. The only way to obtain embryonic human stem cells is to destroy human embryos. Federal funding provides the motivation for destroying human embryos, in spite of a congressional ban prohibiting federal funding for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” The NIH amazingly claims that since private funds will kill the embryos, public funds can be used for research on their stem cells. Funding everything except the embryo destruction disingenuously circumvents the law.

Stem cell research allegedly resolves the dilemma of the roughly 100,000 human embryos sitting frozen in US fertility clinics. These embryos have little chance of being born, so research on them will produce some good, the argument goes. Researching them to death is not the right answer. These embryos could be offered to other couples seeking children. Since their biological parents presumably wanted them to have the opportunity to live they would hopefully consent to this.

The NIH guidelines appear less ethically troubling than the British report that endorses creating new embryos purely for research purposes. However, the NIH guidelines will encourage producing additional embryos. Currently, prospective parents who want to avoid having extra embryos can attempt to fertilize only as many eggs as they are willing to implant. This reduces the chances of successful pregnancies, but is the only approach that prevents leaving embryos in a frozen limbo.

The NIH guidelines will give fertility clinics and their patients strong incentives to produce as many embryos as possible. Some restraint now exists knowing that freezing extra embryos creates ethical and financial burdens on all involved. This restraint will be removed for some by the increased chances of a successful pregnancy, and knowing extra embryos can be “donated” to the good of humanity.

Ironically, the day before the Donaldson Report was released, the Journal of Neuroscience Research published a study demonstrating that stem cells from adult bone marrow can develop into nerve cells. Previously believed to be impossible, this and other long-held beliefs are being overturned by adult stem cell research. This area holds great promise for alleviating these same devastating illnesses without destroying human embryos.

Adult stem cell research should be pursued vigorously. Treatments for devastating diseases might result. These diseases are difficult to accept because of the lost potential. Precisely the same potential is lost when human embryos, cloned or not, are torn apart. Who might these embryonic beings have become? What might they have accomplished? Those who bring embryos into being should nurture and protect these tiny human lives. Endorsing their destruction makes it easier for society to abdicate its responsibilities to the weak and vulnerable at later stages of development. These policies thereby impact the values we promote in society.