Cloning and Stem Cell Research: Wrong Motives on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Human cloning may soon become an accepted means of producing human embryonic stem cells for use in medical therapies. The Donaldson Report, released in August by a government advisory commission headed by Britain's Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson, sanctions the use of just such a practice. If passed by Parliament, Britain would likely become the first country in the world to explicitly permit the cloning of human embryos. The Report endorses the process of transferring someone's DNA (the chemical basis of our genes) into a human egg stripped of its own DNA, resulting in a cloned human embryo. The commission approves only of what is being called "therapeutic cloning" - cloning in which the therapeutic benefits are bestowed upon patients in need of treatments developed from the cloned embryo's stem cells. Although this may bring therapeutic benefits to the patient, it is critical to recognize that no therapy whatsoever is bestowed upon the cloned embryo as - much to the contrary - obtaining the stem cells necessarily results in his or her death. In fact, the Donaldson Report ensures that no cloned embryo survives by requiring the destruction of all such embryos after 14 days as a means of preventing the development of cloned fetuses and babies - a process which has been termed "reproductive cloning." To prohibit human cloning is a good thing - but not if such prohibition demands the mandatory destruction of a human being who has already been cloned for the express benefit of someone else. Those who support the Donaldson Report, as well as many who favor human embryonic stem cell research in the U.S., have succumbed to the utilitarian drive to maximize the ends without considering the means.

Named the Breakthrough of the Year for 1999 by the prestigious journal Science, human embryonic stem cell research may indeed have the potential to benefit many people who suffer from serious debilitating conditions. Because embryonic stem cells can develop into many different types of tissues, researchers hope these cells can be coaxed into replacing tissues whose function has been lost or compromised as a result of injury or disease. For example, someone with diabetes might be given replacement pancreatic cells that produce normal amounts of insulin. Similar treatments might be developed for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

The British interest in cloning arises largely in response to a chief obstacle encountered by scientists doing research on embryonic stem cells - namely, how to transplant cells or tissue derived from an embryo into a patient without that patient rejecting the implanted material. Obtaining cells from an embryo which has been cloned by inserting a patient's own DNA into an egg cell devoid of genetic material circumvents the risk of tissue rejection which would likely be posed if stem cells were derived from non-cloned embryos who do not share the patient's genetic material. For example, a patient suffering from severe burns could have embryos cloned using genetic material derived from his or her own cells. If the stem cells obtained from these cloned embryos could be coaxed into becoming skin cells, they would be genetically identical to the patient and would pose no risk of rejection.

The Donaldson Report, as well as human embryonic stem cell research which does not involve cloning, displays a particularly problematic approach to human life that has broad implications. By definition, research on embryonic stem cells involves the destruction of some human beings for the so-called benefit of others. Therapeutic cloning goes one step further and entails the deliberate creation-as well as the sacrifice-of human embryos for the alleged good of others. It treats human life as a commodity to be manufactured when needed and destroyed when desired to achieve some "greater" purpose. The utilitarian ethic, which justifies treating some humans as means to the end of benefitting others, is employed by those who promote both of these intrinsically objectionable practices. At their core, these acts are violations of human dignity.

The Council of Europe affirmed as much when the preamble to its 1998 Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine: Additional Protocol on the Prohibition of Cloning Human Beings declared "that the instrumentalisation of human beings through the deliberate creation of genetically identical human beings is contrary to human dignity and thus constitutes a misuse of biology and medicine." Article 1.1 of this protocol states that "Any intervention seeking to create a human being genetically identical to another human being, whether living or dead, is prohibited." This serves to reinforce Article 18.2 of the original 1997 Convention, which stated: "The creation of human embryos for research purposes is prohibited." Little wonder an ethics spokesman for the political right in Germany declared that "the UK has now left the European community in terms of moral values."

While the recently released NIH guidelines for federally funding destructive human embryonic stem cell research stop short of sanctioning human cloning as a means of producing embryonic stem cells, government sanctioning of embryo destruction is itself not commendable - regardless of whether cloning is employed. Currently, a congressional ban prohibits federal funding for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death." The only way to obtain human embryonic stem cells is to destroy human embryos. The NIH guidelines make the astonishing claim that so long as private funds are used to kill the embryos, public funds can be used to support research on the cells derived from such embryos. They allege that such research is itself untainted by the fact that it necessitates the destruction of innocent human beings. However, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research provides the very motivation for obtaining these stem cells and thereby destroying human embryos. Funding this research knowingly subjects human embryos to certain death. The fact that the NIH does not fund the destructive aspects of the research in no way absolves them of grave wrongdoing. To suggest otherwise is to disingenuously circumvent the existing law.

The area of stem cell research has been marked by many unprecedented advances. Ironically, the day before the Donaldson Report was released, the Journal of Neuroscience Research published a study demonstrating that stem cells taken from adult bone marrow had been transformed into nerve cells. This was previously believed to be impossible. Other long-held beliefs, such as the idea that the brain was incapable of regeneration, are being overturned because of research on stem cells derived from non-embryonic sources. With each passing month, research with these stem cells is revealing the huge potential of this area. The hopes of alleviating many devastating illnesses may be achieved via methods which are not dependent upon embryonic stem cells and which therefore do not require the destruction of embryos. As Christians, we should wholly affirm the desire to develop new treatments for diseases and should vigorously support research into adult stem cells and other non-embryonic sources.

The stem cell/cloning controversy raises, once again, the fundamental issue of personhood and the ensuing considerations of how human persons should be treated. Unfortunately, Christians cannot turn to the Bible for a specific verse to tell us if the embryo has the same rights as other humans. However, when Scripture mentions the unborn, the context is almost always one of God's protection for them and His vision for their lives (Psalm 139:13-17; Isaiah 44:1-2; Jeremiah 1:3). Human dignity arises from our being created in the image of God. If we ask "Who is an image of God?," we may receive no easy answer. But Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbor?" His reply with the parable of the Good Samaritan redirects the question (Luke 10:29-37) and emphasizes our responsibility to care for all human beings in whatever ways we can. Are we acting as good neighbors to these embryos? Do we reflect the image of God when we endorse the destruction of other human beings? Hardly.

It is indeed difficult to accept the disability or premature death of any human being because such tragedy marks the loss of potential. Who might this person have become? What might he or she have accomplished? Yet precisely the same potential is lost when a human embryo, cloned or not, is torn apart to supply stem cells for the benefit of another. Who would these embryonic beings have become, if only they had been protected and nurtured? Instead of sanctioning their sacrifice, those who brought these embryos into being should act as caretakers, nurturing and protecting these tiny human lives. In that way, they act as faithful images of God, reflecting His character to the world. Endorsing the destruction of human embryos fails miserably to reach this end, as it makes it ever easier for society to abdicate its responsibilities to the weak and vulnerable at all stages of development. Policies which promote human cloning and research on stem cells derived from human embryos reflect ominously on the state of a society and the values which characterize it.