Human Cloning-Embryo Style: Deliverance or Captivity?

What are we to think of Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. (ACT) trumpeting its successful cloning of a human embryo? Is this a praiseworthy case of man's triumph over the biological mysteries - guaranteeing immeasurable cures for all diseases - or of society held captive by scientists bent on vainglory, financial reward, or the desire to vanquish human suffering at any cost? Should we cheer this effort toward alleviating or obliterating society's most pernicious illnesses, or shudder at the prospect of human clones being sacrificed to restore the health of millions of people in need of cures?

ACT's heralded breakthrough shows that scientists can not only create a human embryo through cloning (a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer), but also that they can stimulate a human egg without fertilization or the introduction of foreign DNA by a sperm to make an "embryo-like entity" through a process known as parthenogenesis. Parthenogenesis is achieved by either taking a very early egg (which has 46 chromosomes instead of the usual 23) and subsequently stimulating it so that an embryo develops, or by taking an egg at a later stage in development (which has the typical 23 chromosomes) and inducing it to double its genetic material and then stimulating it to develop as an embryo. The promise of embryos created through cloning and parthenogenesis is that they will provide genetically matching cells which allegedly will produce regenerative tissues needed to treat or cure patients suffering from nearly every degenerative disease. Such so-called "therapeutic cloning," as opposed to reproductive cloning, results in the creation of embryos who have been fashioned specifically for destructive harvesting of their stem cells. Because these stem cells should be genetically compatible with the person from whom the clone was created or whose donated egg was used to stimulate the embryo made by parthenogenesis, panaceas for patients suffering from diabetes, neurological diseases, and a host of other maladies may be obtained via creating - and then killing - their embryonic clones.

Many people may have thought that the issue of creating embryos for their stem cells was resolved this past August with President's Bush's decision on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. President Bush did approve limited federal funding of such research, but only on embryonic stem cells obtained from embryos who had previously been destroyed. Bush explained that the existing stem cell lines for which he would allow government funding were derived from embryos for whom the life and death question had already been settled. How is it, then, that ACT created cloned human embryos for the purpose of stem cell research?

This question underscores one of the most often neglected issues concerning the debate on human embryo research. It is not enough to regulate embryo research merely by regulating federal funding for such research. Rather, we must insist on laws and policies that regulate both federally and privately funded research. Although ACT does have an ethics board to review its research protocols, as a private company it does not have to conform to policy developed at the national level. In fact, ACT disregarded the recommendation from the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) that cloned human embryos should not be considered as an ethical source of stem cells. Although the House has passed a bill to ban all human cloning, the Senate has yet to consider the bill. Therefore, our nation is currently without a law banning - in both the private and public spheres - stem cell research using cloned human embryos.

For many people, one of the most troubling fears is that a human clone will be born in the near future. In a CNN interview following his company's announcement that they had cloned a human embryo, Dr. Michael West, Chief Executive Officer of ACT, assured the public that fears of reproductive cloning are unfounded since the FDA is providing oversight of reproductive clinics in the U.S. However, such oversight is, in fact, not reassuring, as the FDA failed to respond as they should have to last summer's announcement by the Jones Institute (a reproductive clinic based in Norfolk, VA) that researchers there had solicited human eggs and sperm for the express purpose of creating embryos for destructive research. Given that this occurred in the face of a national consensus against creating embryos specifically for destructive research, we have every reason to fear that the birth of the world's first human clone may be just around the corner.

Rather than employing embryo-destructive means to achieve the laudable goal of curing all human disease, we must consider the moral weight of human embryos and the implications of such for human embryo research. It is imperative that we resist the temptation to endorse wholeheartedly the good end of combating human ills without first examining any underlying moral concerns presented by the means to that end. Did the ACT scientists merely clone a "cluster of cells," as claimed, or did they create a cloned human being intended for destruction in scientific research? If the latter, then ACT's research has already been roundly condemned by three seminal ethical treatises on human research: the Nuremberg Code, the Belmont Report, and the Declaration of Helsinki. Society has deemed it wrong to conduct human research that is characterized by the expectation of sure demise and the absence of potential benefit for the research subject. The justification of potential good - even for a multitude of others - cannot supplant the human dignity and rights of the individual.

What are the competing views of the moral status of a human embryo? The first view is that a human embryo is a human life. It does not matter that a human embryo does not look like a mature human being, that it resembles a fish, or that it is no larger than the period at the end of this sentence; the physical nature of the human embryo is simply the nature of a human being at the embryonic stage of development. Within this view, research on human embryos is allowed only if the benefit of the research to the embryos themselves outweighs their risk of harm. The second view is that the embryo is merely a cluster of cells under the control of the genetic code and regards the human embryo as nothing more than a batch of human tissue. Those who hold this view believe that all research on human embryos should be permitted.

An intermediate view asserts that the human embryo possesses some moral value in that it is a form of human life, though not a person. This view condones research conducted on embryos prior to 14 days of development and prohibits implantation of embryos who have been experimented upon. In this view, the presence of personhood - rather than biological human life or the inherent value of human beings - is the predominant value. Some scientists have equated the onset of personhood with the development of consciousness, the capability for reason and sentience, or the ability to have sensations and feelings. This mark was set at fourteen days, the point at which the "primitive streak" (precursor to the brain and central nervous system) develops. Another reason for regarding the 14-day mark as the onset of personhood is the fact that prior to this point an embryo can undergo twinning - which some believe suggests that an embryo should not be regarded as a unique individual before this point. However, some scientists object that the 14-day line is arbitrary and was chosen because it is the last day an embryo can be maintained in culture. At any rate, arguments which measure the value of an individual in terms of personhood - and which deem personhood to be a post-conception attribute - are themselves risky. Consider, for example, the implications on certain populations of society, such as the elderly or those who are mentally handicapped.

Society has already allowed the laboratory creation of human embryos for procreation, but the creation of embryos for research purposes raises an entirely different set of ethical issues. First, the deliberate creation of embryos amounts to instrumentalization of those embryos, as such embryos are created solely for use by other human beings. Additionally, these cloned embryos and their embryonic stem cells are viewed in terms of their commercial value, which raises the issue of commodification of our genetic offspring. It is worth noting that ACT has nearly all patents or patents pending on these methodologies for making these "embryo-like entities." ACT has essentially created human embryos whose parts they can sell so that other companies can develop therapies that will allegedly treat or heal all of our ailments. Creating human embryos for therapy, not procreation, is in direct violation with the principle that a human being should be valued as an end in herself - and not as a means to another valued end, whatever that might be.

What ACT and other proponents of "therapeutic" cloning are asking us to believe is that cloning a human embryo is not the same as cloning a human baby. However, although many seek to assure us that embryos of the age used in research are merely a "cluster of cells" whose individuality may not yet even be established, the fact remains that no matter how hard we might try to characterize a human embryo as something other than human, if allowed to develop it simply won't become a fish (or an organism of any other species). Underlying support for the quest to cure the world's maladies through human cloning and embryonic stem cell research is our own captivity: all too many of us have allowed scientists to tell us what is right and wrong based on the outcomes they promise. We have no guarantees that their promises of our future good will be kept; however, we do know that evil is being perpetrated in the loss of embryonic lives.