National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
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Issue Date:  March 19, 2004

Cloning advance spurs ethical quandaries

Arguments point to unexpected turns in debate as age of cloned of babies draws closer


Two Christmases ago, there came news of a child born -- the world’s first baby clone. Researchers linked to a religious sect announced the supposed breakthrough, causing what might have been moral panic, in normal circumstances. Instead, the sect known as the Raelians became an amusing interlude in the vexing debate over human cloning.

Within days, it became apparent that the baby claim was out of this world. That is a realm not strange to Raelians, who believe visitors from outer space created the human race by cloning themselves.

Now comes a fresh revelation of cloning, not by Raelians, but by Koreans. This time, there are no jokes about sightings of newborns that bear an eerie resemblance to Uncle Martin on the old sitcom “My Favorite Martian.”

Nobody is laughing, because this is the real deal.

South Korean scientists have cloned, not a baby, but a human embryo, and extracted stem cells from the embryo for experimental use. The goal is to create replacement tissue for people with injuries, disabilities and diseases, although it is a distant goal, at best. The embryos are discarded along the way.

“It’s clear now that we have a cloned human embryo. Once that knowledge is there, it’s there. We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” said Thomas A. Shannon, a Catholic bioethicist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts who believes such experimentation can be ethical, within limits.

Mary Jane Owen, who disagrees with Shannon on the moral question, had the same reading of the new cloning reality. “It’s flying out of Pandora’s box, and it’s not going back in,” said Owen, who directs the National Catholic Partnership on Disability in Washington. “I think it’s a tragedy.”

At a conference in Seattle Feb. 12, the Korean team revealed data that could aid in the quest to clone for purposes of human reproduction, as distinct from medical research. The difference is whether the clone is brought to term as a child, or used only in experiments. The Koreans themselves, while bringing science fiction closer to medical fact, called for a ban on reproductive cloning.

Scientists, ethicists and policymakers say they are fairly united in opposition to cloning babies. This outward consensus, however, hardly extends to the question of so-called “therapeutic cloning,” which involves creating and killing 100-cell blastocysts or early-stage embryos for the sake of harvesting stem cells. That is an argument with two distinct sides.

News releases fired off after the Korean bombshell may give an impression of fairly fixed and predictable positions in this debate. However, side comments and passing arguments point to some unexpected turns ahead, especially as the age of cloned babies draws closer. One amazing turn could find the Catholic church calling for clones to be born.

For now, the Catholic leadership opposes any manner of cloning, as do most major religious bodies.

Many ethicists defend “therapeutic” cloning, while support among scientists remains high. Still, scientists do not know if research cloning will show any more promise than stem cells reaped from adults. The latter procedure poses no ethical quandary, because no nascent life is created or destroyed.

Within hours of the Korean announcement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cranked out a news statement calling it a “sign of moral egress.”

Creating human lives “solely to destroy them is an ultimate violation of research ethics,” said Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, speaking for the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Pro-life Activities. He referred to at least 20 human embryos discarded in the process of producing a single stem-cell line for further research.

“Seldom have researchers done so much harm to so many fellow humans, with so little justification,” Keeler said, adding that the Koreans used 16 women as “egg factories” to produce 242 eggs for the experiment.

There is nothing about cloning that the hierarchy can stomach. The procedure is “full of illicit acts,” Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said in a statement.

Cloning runs afoul of church teaching that procreation should never be divorced from the loving union of man and woman. Then there is the destruction of embryonic life, as well as what clones may do to the sacrosanct notion of human uniqueness and individuality. Clones are genetic copies of another person.

Add to that concerns about commercializing human life and “whether economic profit should prevail absolutely over fundamental moral arguments,” as Sgreccia put it.

Along the edges of his argument, the bishop said something else that could have stunning implications in the not-too-distant future.

While cloning babies would be illicit, cloning for experimental purposes is “doubly illicit,” the bishops said. So-called therapeutic cloning is “even more … monstrous” than reproductive cloning, because it involves deliberate destruction of human life, said Sgreccia.

In the United States, church officials have opposed federal legislation that would ban cloning for purposes of reproduction but allow it for stem-cell experiments. Such a law would require killing all clones. It would amount to a ban on allowing these “human beings to survive,” said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. bishops’ conference in Congressional testimony a year ago.

Does this mean the church will stand up for reproductive cloning, if it becomes the only way to save the blastocysts, or some of them?

“Certainly, the church would be against any law to criminalize efforts to bring a cloned child to live birth, once created. That would be to define a class of humanity that it is a crime not to discard or destroy,” said Doerflinger, deputy pro-life director for the bishops.

He was alluding to U.S. Senate legislation, offered by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, that would effectively ban cloning for reproduction but not for research. The bill would make it illegal to transfer a cloned human embryo to a womb.

“That doesn’t mean we’ll be actively encouraging people to go out and rescue cloned embryos and put them in their wombs,” said Doerflinger. “But that is the unique conundrum that this issue raises. We’ve never faced it before with any pro-life issue.”

All the same, opposition to reproductive cloning remains broad, but often appears shallow or tentative. Usually cited by scientists and ethicists is the likelihood of producing a sick child, a misgiving that might last only until the next medical leap forward.

Shannon of Worcester Polytechnic does not see reproductive cloning as a matter of high principle.

“I really don’t understand why this method of reproduction is a violation of human dignity,” he said. If clones flout the idea of human uniqueness, then so do identical twins -- which are “nature’s clones,” according to Shannon.

“I’m not advocating doing it,” he said of reproductive cloning, “but I don’t really get incensed by it.”

Asked about nature’s clones, Doerflinger said identical twins may be genetically the same, but are not created solely for the purpose of duplicating someone else, as human clones would be. Clones are used as objects from the start, in other words. But he is not so worried as to favor a ban on cloning for reproduction only.

The Catholic church has a distinct position on the sanctity of early embryonic life. But the church is also blending in with other groups that do not hold this view, on the broader question of cloning.

“The United Methodist church still supports a woman’s right to abortion,” said Jay Dee Hanson, a bioethics consultant to the Methodist Board of Church and Society. “But we see this as different from the question of whether companies should create a bank of embryos to experiment on.”

Like most other liberal Protestant denominations, the Methodists have called for a ban on all cloning, partly out of concern for what some describe as the integrity of creation. “We haven’t declared embryos as full human life, but we also believe that you don’t create life just to destroy it,” especially when the medical benefits are so debatable, said Hanson. He noted that some environmental groups are taking the same position, defending what they call the ecology of human life.

As of now, U.S. scientists are free to clone, though not with taxpayer money. Legislation is stirring, not just in Washington. Among other states that have taken up the issue, New Jersey recently adopted a proposal to ban reproductive cloning but allow cloning for research and extraction -- throughout the fetal stages.

That kind of solution, if mirrored nationally, would raise the moral stakes for many. It might also spark a previously unimagined rally cry: Let the clones live.

William Bole is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Commonweal magazine and other publications. He lives in Massachusetts.

Critics say cloning misuses health resources

Catholic ethicists and activists who disagree on cloning ethics feel nonetheless that society has better things to do with its resources.

“My main problem is that we’re trying to do all this high-tech, scientific medicine when most of the world has no access to it at all, and half the world needs basic health care,” said Jesuit Fr. John Kavanaugh, a philosopher-ethicist at St. Louis University.

Kavanaugh is undecided on the strictly ethical question of cloning for medical research, because he is not sure about the moral status of early-stage embryos.

Thomas A. Shannon of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is more at ease with the ethics of such experimentation, and even favors federal funding, if only to allow a measure of public oversight. “But we need to think about the larger health care picture,” he said, citing the need for better primary care and preventive medicine.

M. Therese Lysaught, a University of Dayton bioethicist, strongly opposes cloning. It is far more urgent to address “glaring inequities in basic health care” in the United States, and to fight preventable illnesses in impoverished countries, she said.

Mary Jane Owen sees an irony in the exotic pursuit of cloning that may or may not one day help people with spinal cord injuries and other afflictions -- at a time when those people are being wheeled out of rehabilitation centers after a few days for lack of insurance coverage.

“That’s outrageous to me,” said Owen, who directs the Washington-based National Catholic Partnership on Disability, and uses a wheelchair because of spinal injuries.

-- William Bole

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004

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