The Road to Human Cloning
by Carrie Gordon Earll, Bioethics Analyst
For many of us, the term "cloning" conjures up scenes from a 1996 motion picture entitled, "Multiplicity." In the film, actor Michael Keaton plays a construction worker, husband and father frustrated by his busy schedule and the lack of time in his life. It appears that his dilemma is solved when a geneticist offers him the seemingly perfect solution – cloning. Soon, movie viewers see multiple copies or "clones" of Keaton’s character performing a variety of tasks, in order to streamline his life and give him more free time. As is often the case with movies, however, the proposed cloning of humans beings will not be nearly so simple or entertaining.
It’s true that cloning makes a copy of the original. However, the science required to turn fantasy into reality entails some tricky tinkering with genetics. So far, scientists have identified two categories of potential human cloning: therapeutic and reproductive. Neither has been attempted, as far as we know. However, therapeutic cloning may soon be underway in Great Britain, where scientists there have a green light from the government to clone human embryos. Under the British plan, scientists will attempt to "clone" medical patients in order to cure them. Scientists will remove the DNA (or genetic code) from patients suffering from diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease, insert the DNA into an egg empty of any genetic material, and essentially clone the patient by creating a human embryo with the patient’s DNA. Then, scientists will use the embryo’s cells and tissue in treatments and therapies to cure the patient. The expectation is that a patient is more likely to benefit and less likely to reject cells and tissue from his or her own DNA rather than from another source. Unfortunately, the therapeutic benefits only extend to the patient; the embryo must be destroyed within 14 days. The British Parliament ignored the moral question of killing human embryos and mandated this destruction in order to prevent Britain from moving into the second category of cloning: reproductive.
A good example of reproductive cloning is found in recent news reports that two infertility specialists will try to clone a human being in an undisclosed Mediterranean country. According to Severino Antinori and Panos Zavos, the purpose of the cloning is to help infertile couples have a child, specifically to counter male sterility. To create this genetically related child, researchers plan take a cell from the man, extract the nucleus containing his DNA, and inject it into an empty, nucleus-free egg provided by the woman. The egg is then stimulated by a pulse of electricity, causing the cells to divide and grow into an embryo, which is implanted into the womb of the woman. Any child born by this process would be a "clone" of the father, carrying his genetic code and no genetic material from the mother. While assisting infertile married couples to conceive a child is arguably a noble endeavor, cloning human beings for reproductive purposes is fraught with unacceptable scientific risks and immoral practices.
If the experiences of scientists trying to clone animals are any indication, Antinori and Zavos may be in over their heads. Attempts to clone humans will utilize the same technology used to clone animals. The success rate for cloning animals is a horrifying 3 to 5 percent – with most clones dying in utero or being born with severe, life-threatening abnormalities. Some animal clones develop into an abnormally large size, risking the life of the surrogate mothers carrying them. Scientists may have few qualms about aborting a deformed animal fetus but what would they do with a human in the same condition? If the human embryos are created in a scientific experiment, destroying them cannot be far away. The prospect of subjecting unborn children to such genetic malfunctions is so disastrous that one expert in mammalian cloning, Mark Westhusin, said, "No one who actually has any experience with cloning wants anything to do with [human cloning.]" 1
The trail blazing Antinori and Zavos say they have an answer to this potential dilemma: They say they’ll devise a yet-to-be-announced "perfect" screening method to eliminate the problematic embryos which are doomed to fail. There are at least two snags in this proposal: 1) Cloning experts (which Antinori and Zavos are not) say no one knows exactly what causes the animal clones to go awry, let alone know how to screen them; and 2) destroying less than perfect human embryos is immoral.
Perhaps the greatest charade lies in the proposed criteria for couples to qualify for this hopeful venture. Antinori told a conference in Rome that he will not accept single women, couples who want to replace a child who has died, or older childless couples. How long do we think these restrictive guidelines will allow only double infertile couples to "benefit" from this latest biotechnological miracle? If abortion and physician-assisted suicide are any indication, it won’t be long until reproductive cloning is available to anyone who wants it and can afford to pay for it.
In the dawn of legalization, abortion advocates assured a skeptical public that it would be restricted to cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is endangered. Today, we know those exceptions have expanded into abortion on demand for any reason during the full term of pregnancy, unless a state has passed a law to the contrary. Likewise, proponents of legalized physician-assisted suicide (PAS) claim it would be limited to mentally competent, terminally ill patients. However, we can look at the Netherlands, where PAS is openly tolerated, to see that the lines drawn to restrict it are often crossed or ignored.
Cloning for reproductive purposes may be ahead. However, we know from past experience that once people perceive cloning (or anything else) as a benefit for some, it quickly becomes a right for everyone. The road to reproductive cloning is filled with land mines: some we’ve stepped on before, others are in places we cannot see and have yet to imagine. When you know that the road ahead of you leads to biological and moral disaster, it doesn’t make sense to forge ahead. Someone should explain this to Severino Antinori and Panos Zavos before they take mankind somewhere we do not want to go.
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