Imagine a world in which human beings can be replicated using cloning. Unwanted genes could be eliminated, children could be scientifically engineered and women could have babies without the need of men. The debate about human cloning is controversial as it involves a balance between scientific advancement, ethics and human rights. One needs to consider the social implications, political and ethical abuse and the way in which governments should regulate human cloning before deciding whether it is a realistic future development.
There are two different types of human cloning, namely, reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. Reproductive cloning is the process by which a human is produced which is genetically identical to another human. Therapeutic cloning is the first step of reproductive cloning and it is carried out by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. Embryonic stem cells derived from therapeutic cloning can be instructed to form specialized cell types such as bone marrow. If the cells are placed back into the individual who gave the DNA for the Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, these cells are genetically identical and will not be rejected by the donor’s immune system.
The first stage of both reproductive and therapeutic cloning is called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT). In SCNT, the nucleus, which contains the organism’s DNA, of a somatic cell (a body cell other than a gamete) is removed and the rest of the cell is discarded. At the same time, the nucleus of the egg cell is removed. The nucleus of the somatic cell is then inserted into the enucleated egg cell. After being inserted into the egg, the somatic cell nucleus is reprogrammed by the host cell. The egg, which contains the nucleus of a somatic cell, is stimulated with a shock and will begin to divide. After many mitotic divisions, this single cell forms a blastocyst (an early stage embryo with about 100 cells) with almost identical DNA to the original organism (see diagram 1).
At this stage a decision has to be made. Either reproductive or therapeutic cloning can occur. If human reproductive cloning is the decision, then the blastocyst will be transplanted into a surrogate mother and predictions assert that it will grow to be a human baby. This controversial statement is the source of much debate. Reproductive cloning raises concerns about the nature of human individuality and how a human life should begin. The public is not against the artificial fertilization as “In vitro fertilisation” is an accepted method of pregnancy. However, not using the ovum and sperm cells, but rather nuclear information from any cell, allows for a clone to be born.
The Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated the following about human reproductive cloning: “The WHO considers the use of cloning for the replication of human individuals to be ethically unacceptable.” (WHO: 1999: p2). The European Parliament shares the same views as the WHO and passed a resolution stating that: “The cloning of human beings cannot under any circumstance be justified or tolerated by any society because it is a serious violation of fundamental human rights.” (European Parliament: 1997). These two views emphasise the world’s disagreement with human reproductive cloning.
In 1997, when the first large mammal Dolly, the sheep, was cloned, speculation about human cloning erupted. Besides the fact that Dolly was a successful clone, it was her death which created more speculation about cloning. Some scientists have said that a contributing factor to Dolly’s death was that she could have been born with a genetic age of six years, the same age as the sheep from which she was cloned. The post mortem showed that Dolly’s telomeres (the end of a chromosome which protects the chromosome from deterioration) were much shorter than they should have been for a sheep of her age. Having shorter telomeres typically is a result of the ageing process. This made scientists believe that human clones will age much more quickly than normal humans. Another troubling fact that the news about one successful clone obscured was that there were two hundred and seventy six experimental embryos which failed prior to the one successful clone.
As cloning of humans is not legal, scientists cannot experiment and therefore are unable to predict accurately what would happen should a human be cloned. Some scientists have predicted that embryonic clones might appear to succeed at first, but eventually develop foetal problems, or exhibit other abnormalities in later stages of development. Failed attempts to make embryos could result in grossly deformed foetuses that do not survive or that survive but only in a variety of severely compromised states, embryos which developed “inside-out” or of gigantic proportions, humans who age and die prematurely and a variety of other genetic anomalies.
The majority of the concerns about human cloning have focused on issues related to “playing God,” interfering with the natural order of life, and taking away a generations right to a unique individuality. By legalising cloning, all of these fears will come true. Although there are already unnatural adaptations of the way humans live, such as heart transplants and contraception, none of these methods allow for selection of a new human.
Through cloning, parents would be able to “design” babies of their choice- eliminating unwanted genes but also choosing the gender and physical attributes such as whether or not the child will have curly hair. Parents may also be able to “replace” a lost child through cloning. This would be unjust because we are not only a product of our genetic composition but also the environment in which we live. The cloned child will not be the same person and will not be able to replace the deceased child.
This power can easily be abused by both government and parents. Cloning children for a specific reason is immoral and unfair for the clone. Cloned children may be rejected by society or their peers. Parents would have to decide which spouse to clone (mother or father) and which genes to pass on. Potential elimination of the male species could occur as women can clone themselves without a man. Certain traits such as red hair can be removed from all children, in extreme cases an ‘Aryan Society’ like Hitler’s dream could become reality.
“Super-humans” created for one specific purpose such as to be a soldier, or to excel on the sports field could be created. What rights would these clones have? Children conceived by conventional methods (egg and sperm) may start to become criticized because it could become socially acceptable to look a certain way only. The line needs to be drawn before we are living in a society like this. Besides the moral problems, the technology is not yet developed enough to consider cloning humans.
If human cloning was to become legal, there is no way of saying how many “failed human clones” there would be. It is contrary to the principle of equality of human beings, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) as it permits a eugenic selection of the human race. As asserted by both the WHO and the European Parliament, it offends human dignity and it requires experimentation on humans. A future which includes human clones offends our moral sensibilities and diminishes us all as human beings. There should be strict rules regulating against it in every country, worldwide. The prospect of even a single human embryo serving as an instrument in a cloning experiment is morally, ethically, and theologically repugnant.
On the other hand, if cloning is to become a scientifically viable process therapeutic cloning is a more morally and ethically accepted direction for science to take. The most important difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning is that the latter’s end result would not be a human being. The clone would be a replacement organ, piece of nerve tissue, or group of skin cells.
Nevertheless, there are also moral drawbacks to therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning creates an embryo with the explicit intention of destroying it. The question to ask is when an embryo can be classified as a human. Either the early embryo is not considered a human as it is just a mass of undifferentiated cells, or that an embryo is a human being from conception and it is owed all the legal and moral respect due to a person.
With these varying views it is difficult to decide whether therapeutic cloning is a viable method of cloning. However, if one considers the great benefits that cloning organs would have for sick people then these views tend to change. The outcome of therapeutic cloning is a mass of cells, creating an organ, not a whole human being. With strict worldwide regulations, therapeutic cloning could become a practical method of saving lives. As long as the egg is never fertilized by sperm, it is not immoral to use the cells to make an organ needed for transplanting into the sick person. It is unconventional to allow this group of cells to be seen as a human as there was no sperm involved in the fertilization. Nature creates humans from sperm and egg cells. Therefore if one were to use skin cells and egg cells using the cells produced is not killing an embryo. Therapeutic cloning can therefore happen without destroying an embryo.
An alternative idea is to use cells derived from blood in the umbilical cord at the time of birth. Umbilical cord stem cells are rich in hematopoietic cells (blood-forming stem cells capable of producing all components of blood and marrow), which are found in the bone marrow. Hematopoietic cells can be used for the treatment of leukaemia and other blood diseases. There are many public and private cord-blood banks which are able to collect and store neonatal cord-blood as future “insurance” against diseases that might be treatable using a stem cell approach.
By storing children’s cord-blood, in the future, it may be possible to use cloning techniques to help reproduce these stem cells, so that more are available for whole families’ use. Many feel that using umbilical cord-blood stem cells for therapeutic cloning is a more ethically and morally responsible way to clone human tissue. Additionally, obtaining stem cells from umbilical cord-blood is much simpler than collecting stem cells from other sources. As stem cell knowledge and techniques advance, the ability to use cord-blood stem cells in more diverse ways becomes more of a reality every day.
The regulations that would need to be put in place surrounding therapeutic cloning would be as follows: the use of controversial embryonic stem cells must be strictly regulated. The time period for which the blastocyst is allowed to grow would need to be controlled and should never be allowed to be implanted into a surrogate mother. Lastly, some kind of body would need to be established to ensure that these regulations are adhered to.
The world that many have imagined should stay just that- imaginary. Reproductive cloning has been found to be unethical and immoral and at this stage too many objections make it an unreliable option. Research around therapeutic cloning, however, should continue as it offers an attractive alternative but it should be focussed on improving the use of umbilical cord stem cells. Strict regulations and worldwide laws will help to make therapeutic cloning a realistic possibility for the future.
Please note: this diagram was translated from German into English by Mr Belkorin and the spelling for “therapeutic” is incorrect.
Belkorin, 2007, Reproduction and Therapeutic Cloning (diagram) http://wikipedia.org/Cloning.diagram [2/09/10]
This diagram shows reproductive and therapeutic cloning in the laboratory: