Cloning is here, Missouri – ready or not
March 10, 2005
The issues surrounding cloning and embryonic stem cell research are often thought of as complicated and technical—and in many ways they are. We are not accustomed to discussing scientific phrases such as “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” or SCNT, over our morning coffee.
However, as science and technology continue to advance and to affect our world in many ways, we will more and more often be required to “stretch” our mental faculties in order to understand what is being done, to develop our opinions about these technologies and in some instances—such as cloning and embryonic stem cell research—to discuss the moral implications of the technologies.
Although it is more comfortable in our familiar “non-technical” everyday world, we cannot remain in denial and hope that “someone else will figure this out.” Neither can we simply entrust the developers of the technologies themselves to supply answers to all the questions that the technologies raise. These technologies will affect everyone—therefore everyone has a stake in the decisions that are made about them.
In developing our opinions about cloning and embryonic stem cell research, we are doing nothing more or less than deciding what kind of world we want to live in and how humans should be treated. Cloning is frequently considered to be a futuristic, far-off possibility, but cloning is already here. In the late 1990s scientists cloned a sheep named Dolly. More recently, scientists in Korea have produced cloned human embryos.
Prior to the 1970s, we thought of the beginning of embryonic development as only the union of a sperm and egg which always took place inside the female body. This changed with the development of the technology for in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
When IVF was developed, it meant that embryonic development no longer needed to start inside the body of a female. Instead it could start outside the body, with the egg and sperm being brought together in vitro, which is Latin for “in glass.” With the advent of IVF, the beginning of embryonic development was thought of as the union of a sperm and egg which could take place either inside or outside the female body.
Now fast forward to 2005. Cloning technology has brought along a “third way” of producing an embryo—in this case an embryo that is a clone or “copy” of another individual. We can now think of the beginning of embryonic development as either the union of sperm and egg that can take place inside or outside the female body, OR the union of a body cell nucleus and an egg cell through cloning.
Regardless of which of these ways is used, the resulting human embryo has 46 chromosomes, grows and divides, and goes through the same stages of embryonic development.
SCNT: A cloning technique
Cloning involves taking a body cell (called a somatic cell) and inserting the nucleus from that cell (which contains the genetic material) into an egg cell. This process is called SCNT, which is a cloning technique. This technique produces an embryo of whatever species is being cloned. The cloned embryo is a “copy,” or identical twin, of the animal (as in the case of Dolly) or human from which the genetic material was obtained.
After this is done, and given the nutrition and environment that any embryo requires, the newly produced one-cell embryo begins to grow and divide, just like any other embryo.
When they think of “cloning”, many people think of a process that immediately produces a full-grown animal or human. This is not the case.
Cloning, whether done in animals or in humans, involves first producing an embryo, which then must be “gestated” or taken through the development of pregnancy, in order to produce a live individual. In other words, Dolly the sheep started out as a cloned embryo that was placed into a female sheep, which later gave birth to Dolly.
In embryonic stem cell research, the newly-produced embryo is not placed into a female which later gives birth to it. Instead, the embryo is taken apart and destroyed in order to obtain its stem cells, which are then used for research. Questions regarding the proper treatment of human embryos are at the heart of the debate over human cloning and embryonic stem cell research.
Do clones have rights?
It may seem far-fetched to ask about the rights of human clones, since no cloned human baby, to our knowledge, has ever been born. But the issue is upon us, whether we like it or not. Since the disagreement over this issue centers around questions of how it should be permissible to treat human embryos, and since human embryos have already been produced through cloning, two questions should be answered immediately.
Question No. 1: “Is the product of SCNT (cloning) an embryo?”
Science can answer that question. The answer is a clear “yes.” Although cloning proponents now prefer other terminology due to the controversial nature of their plans, the term “human embryo” is used throughout the scientific literature to describe what is produced through SCNT (cloning).
Question No. 2: “What is the value of the human embryo that is produced?”
Science is not equipped to give us this answer because this is a moral question. Science can answer many questions about the physical world, but science cannot answer questions about morality.
We look to other sources for moral guidance—among them religion, schools, community and family customs. For the Christian, Scripture is our source of moral authority. However, it is not necessary to believe in the existence of God in order to acknowledge the value of the human embryo.
Whether you are a Christian and believe that humans are made in the image of God or whether you simply acknowledge the value of humans because you believe that humans are the highest order of evolution, human life is valuable. For pro-life individuals, there can be only one answer to this question. However lofty the claims and however sincere the desire to use embryonic stem cells to cure illnesses, a human embryo, regardless of how it is produced, has value, and should not be destroyed for “spare parts.”
We need to stop talking about cloning as some kind of future technology. It is here now. Science has brought us to the point where human embryos can be produced through cloning. We must decide what status a cloned human will have and how such a human should be treated. Otherwise, we are merely in denial.
It is important to have the moral discussion on the front end of the issue. Just think for a moment about Roe v Wade. Do we really want the moral status of cloned human embryos to be determined by some future court case revolving around what someone may want to do to them one day? Will another class of human embryos—or even born humans—be denied full personhood? We must have the moral discussion now, however politically inexpedient, inconvenient or frightening it may be.
In 2 Samuel 21:9-14, we read that in making restitution for Saul’s actions against the Gibeonites, David handed over seven of Saul’s relatives to the Gibeonites, who killed them and exposed their bodies on a hillside. Amazingly, a relative of those who were killed, a woman named Rizpah, stayed with the bodies night and day, driving away the birds and the wild animals.
In this scene of heart-rending devotion, Rizpah stopped the further desecration of her family. Today, we might say that Rizpah “drew a line in the sand,” upholding the dignity of her family. In doing so, she touched the heart of king David, who was moved to gather up and bury the bones of those who had been killed.
A scene of utter degradation became a scene of dignity through Rizpah’s sacrificial act. May we likewise move to stop the desecration of our larger human family—and in doing so, hope to touch the heart of the king. (Cindy Province holds master’s degrees in medical surgical nursing and bioethics, and she is a cofounder and associate director of the St. Louis Center for Bioethics and Culture. She is also a member of the Missouri Baptist Convention Executive Board.)