The United Nations has recently announced that it will reassess the ban on all forms of human cloning at an ethics panel in Paris this week. The ban was established in 2005 on the grounds that all cloning was declared by the UN to be “incompatible with human dignity and protection of life.” Though the ban was not legally binding, it is a declaration that calls on governments to ban cloning, and essentially halted progress in the development of cloning technology. Now, scientists are beginning to question whether this sweeping prohibition is in line with the true goals of human cloning, pointing out the great difference between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. What might this mean for the future of cloning, and the repercussions on society as we know it?
One extreme is reproductive cloning, the Dolly-type cloning that many of us associate with doomsday images of armies of twins and the loss of personal identity, which was developed into SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) technology 40 years ago in tadpoles and frogs. Essentially, the procedure consisted of transferring a full set of chromosomes from an adult skin cell to an empty embryo, then implanting that embryo into a female, with the end result being a newborn with the same genetic makeup as the adult animal (a la Dolly). Applying this method to humans is theoretically possible, but because of the 2005 ban, many experiments have not yet been carried out. The hypothetical procedure would be similar to that of an experiment carried out in 1993, when researchers split 19 human embryos into 48. The embryos were cultured for a few days and then discarded, but if they had been implanted, the result would allegedly be 48 identical twins. Of course, since no human mother could carry 48 fetuses to term, these pregnancies would have to be implanted into different mothers, or, alternatively, frozen cryogenically and brought to term and born at a later date, creating “serial twins.” I’m sure by now everyone’s red flags are waving, and the ethical implications are endless: imagine meeting someone who looks like, talks like, and, for all genetic purposes, is identical to you. Then imagine learning that there are 46 others out there. Not mentioning the questions of consent (how can an unborn child agree to be part of a scientific experiment?) and custody (does the mother of the clones have a right to her “children,” even if they won’t be born in her lifetime?) In particular, the Universal Declaration on Human Genome and Human Rights asserts that this type of cloning is contrary to human dignity, stating, “cloning is an asexual mode of reproduction, which is unnatural for the human species; a cloned individual will not have two genetic parents; generation lines and family relationships would be distorted.”
However, the ethical dilemmas may be mitigated if you imagine the same procedure with a few regulations. Perhaps a limit could be imposed on the number of fetuses allowed to be split. Say, instead of 19 into 48, just 1 into 2. To put it crudely, a “backup” of sorts. If the first pregnancy isn’t carried to term, there is a viable embryo ready to be inserted for another try. Genetic malignancies can be detected and embryos containing them could be discarded, while embryos with attractive qualities can be amplified. For couples having difficulty getting pregnant, have risk for genetic disease, or older women who are concerned about mutations such as Trisomy 21, this may be an attractive opportunity, but would this be an appropriate use of the technology?
I think that questionable ethics remain, and may not be a future many citizens would be comfortable with.
Conversely, however, there is the type of cloning that many people overlook when thinking about the controversial issue. Therapeutic cloning, or stem-cell research, can be used for pharmaceutical development, diagnostic purposes, and to create cells and tissues for transplantation. The benefits from these procedures is undeniable: in terms of transplantation, stem cells could be cloned from the patient himself, as tissue with cells that have the same genetic makeup are much less likely to be rejected by the host. The organ donor shortage could be alleviated, and graft verse host disease could be virtually eliminated. The therapeutic properties of embryonic stem cells have barely been explored, since the 2005 ban halted research in that area, and much progress could be made if this ban were to be lifted. To place a halt on scientific progress is to go against all that the developed world strives for, and we should question whether it is worth the price. Of course, the gray ethical area between therapeutic and reproductive cloning must be addressed by the UN, but faith in the General Assembly’s ethics committee to promote both progress and social responsibility should overcome the fear of science evolving beyond humanity’s control.
– Libby Greismann