Issue Analysis: Human cloning

Apr 24, 2014

For the first time, scientists have cloned cells from two adults to create human embryos. This technical breakthrough follows similar research last year, which created cloned embryos from infant and fetal cells. Here is what every Christian should know about human cloning: 

What is cloning?

Cloning is a form of reproduction in which offspring result not from the chance union of egg and sperm (sexual reproduction) but from the deliberate replication of the genetic makeup of another single individual (asexual reproduction). Human cloning, therefore, is the asexual production of a new human organism that is, at all stages of development, genetically virtually identical to a currently existing or previously existing human being.

How does therapeutic cloning differ from reproductive cloning?

The use of the term 'therapeutic' and 'reproductive in reference to cloning is misleading. All cloning produces a human embryo and is therefore reproductive in nature. The more accurate phrasing is 'cloning-to-produce-children' and 'cloning-for-research' to make a distinction between cloning that results in the creation of an embryo for subsequent destruction and one that is created in order to continue the normal process of human development.

What is the process of human cloning?

Cloning is achieved by a technique referred to as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The process involves introducing the nuclear material of a human somatic cell (donor) into an oocyte (egg cell) whose own nucleus has been removed or inactivated, and then stimulating this new entity to begin dividing and growing, yielding a cloned human embryo.

Does cloning produce an exact genetic replica of the donor?

No. All human cells, including eggs and sperm, contain small, energy-producing organelles called mitochondria. Mitochondria contain a small piece of DNA that specifies the genetic instructions for making several essential mitochondrial proteins. SCNT transfers the nucleus into the oocyte, which contains mitochondrial DNA of the egg donor. Just as in sexual reproduction, the embryo produced by cloning contains genetic material from two different individuals.

How do the harvested cells from a cloned embryo differ from those produced by sexual reproduction or in-vitro fertilization?

Due to missing, but crucial interactions between the sperm and egg, genetic reprogramming errors’ are inherent to cloning. This leads to random, widespread genetic ‘imprinting’ and epigenetic defects that are both known causes of cancer. In addition to the epigenetic defects, cells derived from cloning that are injected back into the donor are rejected because of epigenetic mis-expression, genetic differences due to mitochondrial DNA, and the incompatibility of cells too immature in development to interact with adult tissue environments. This is the major stumbling block for using material from cloned embryos for the treatment of diseases.

What are the ethical problems concerning human cloning?

The primary moral objection to cloning-for-research is the same as for all embryo-destructive research—it creates human life solely for the purpose of destroying it; using a human embryo merely as a means to an end (e.g., "spare parts").

The objection to cloning-to-produce children are similar in that it poses a threat to the life of the child, and potentially to the birth mother. Even if the process could be made safe, though, it has the potential to alter the "DNA ecosystem" in ways that are un-predictable and thus potentially injurious to human and non-human life. For these reasons, Christians should continue to oppose all forms of human cloning as unethical and unnecessary.

Isn’t concern about the moral status of the embryo based on religious premises? Why should someone who doesn’t agree with that position reject cloning?

While it is true that many people oppose the cloning of human embryos for religious and ethical reasons, the issue is not divided along the typical left/right political spectrum. Even pro-choice advocates and others who hold liberal and progressive political views find sufficient ethical concerns for opposing the procedure.

The progressive International Center for Technology Assessment, for example, highlights the concerns that cloning will lead to the exploitation of women:

In recent testimony, one researcher stated that stem cells might be able to provide up to 1.7 million therapies per year. This would require a minimum of 5-8 million human eggs per year — assuming a very optimistically high success rate of 1 stem cell culture out of 3-5 clonal embryos. Where will researchers get these millions of eggs? From women in this country or abroad, and it is highly likely that many of these women will have to become repeat donors. Egg donation can have significant health impacts on women. Of particular concern are (1) the super-ovulating drugs that women are given in order to provide the eggs for embryo cloning, (2) numerous hormone treatments given to ease egg extraction, and (3) the extraction process itself. Risks to women from egg donation include a potential link to ovarian cysts and cancers, severe pelvic pain, rupture of the ovaries, bleeding into the abdominal cavity, acute respiratory distress, pulmonary embolism, and possible negative effects on future fertility. Most women who are lured into this process are economically disenfranchised and perform this operation because they are in financial need and seek payment for their eggs.

Doesn't a ban on therapeutic cloning remove a promising venue for biomedical research?

Currently, the primary justification for therapeutic cloning is as a means of harvesting embryonic stem cells. Any therapies that would result from the technique would likely come from that use. Cloning, however, not only compounds the ethical concerns of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research but also adds a significant number of other moral problems. This Machiavellian approach would be difficult to justify even if ESC research were to lead to miraculous cures.

But ESC research has proven to be a failure. There are more than 70 conditions currently being treated with adult stem cells, and zero with embryonic stem cells. Despite the media hype of the early 2000s, embryonic stem cell research has proven to be useless at treating medical conditions. When tested on animals, embryonic stem cells turned into tumors. As biological engineer James Sherley once explained, “Figuring out how to use human embryonic stem cells directly by transplantation into patients is tantamount to solving the cancer problem.”

When time and money are limited it's both irrational and immoral to divert funding and attention from promising areas of research to ones that have absolutely no evidence of producing results.

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