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The ethics of cloning

Is she or isn’t she really a clone? That’s the scientific question of the week as Dr. Brigette Boisellier of Clonaid claims her company has created “Eve,” the first cloned human. Boisellier’s claims have yet to be backed up by medical tests from a neutral observer, so it is impossible to yet prove whether Eve is indeed a clone.

            Boisellier is a Bishop in the Raelian movement; a religious group which claims all humans are the result of genetic engineering. Raelian founder and former French journalist Claude Vorilhon told a CNN interviewer, “the origin of humankind, humanity, was created scientifically using DNA and genetic engineering a long time ago by Elohim, a very advanced civilization.” Vorilhon, who now calls himself Rael, went on to say, “Cloning, as they explained to me, is a way to reach eternal life.”

            At the core of the attempts to create Eve, the first cloned human, is a desire for eternal life. At the scientific level this goal is problematic as cloning creates a human with your same genetic makeup rather than a duplicate of any person. The resulting clone is like a twin who will have their own life experiences and influences shaping the person the clone becomes. Raelians say they hope to find a way to download human memories and experience to clones, but this is wishful thinking at best given current science.

            Other scientific problems loom large for the person attempting to clone life. At this point, it is only possible to make true clones of females of child-bearing age. This is because of two key steps in the process in which the egg donor and the surrogate mother influence the clone. First, the genetic material must be placed in a human egg. The egg itself retains its mitochondrial DNA. That mitochondrial DNA largely controls energy regulation in adult cells, but seems to affect the clone’s DNA. Then there is the problem of the surrogate mother. While the surrogate does not share DNA with the clone, research with other animals shows the surrogate affects child development in ways difficult to quantify. Therefore, the only pure clone at this point would be created from the mother who supplies the eggs and serves as the surrogate mother. This is exactly what Clonaid claims they have done.

If Clonaid really did get to this point, which remains doubtful, it has been the result of a lot of trial and error at the expense of the cloned mother. The failure rate along the way in animal research has proved staggering. Only one percent of attempts to insert DNA into eggs are successful and then only 10 percent of those can be successfully implanted in a surrogate and brought to full term. All of this effort takes place so that a woman capable of having children naturally may have a twin baby. Clonaid’s claim to have created the first clone, even if proved true, is nothing but a morally reprehensible publicity stunt.

Of course, the desire to obtain eternal life through an endless series of clones does not exist among people of faith whose religion teaches of an afterlife. Christians know that there is more than this current life and have no reason to attempt to replicate themselves in perpetuity. But for those who see no reason to believe in an afterlife, the desire to create a clone comes a bit easier. Yet, for anyone, the desire to clone human life grows from an idolatry of the self in which one’s continued existence becomes the greatest good. Cloning for the purpose of extending life denies the basic sacredness of life and distorts the image of God present in each person into the image of the person desiring cloning.

This form of idolatry is not very troubling for most people in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But there are other moral issues in cloning which will prove more taxing.

The Clonaid publicity stunt overshadows the real work taking place in cloning, which is aimed at extending life rather than creating new life. The majority of working being done now in the field is aimed at therapeutic cloning rather than reproductive cloning. The goal is therapeutic cloning is to create body parts rather than whole humans. Researchers are interested in using cloning techniques to gain the DNA of a donor to combine with stem cells to grow new body parts. The end result of this work would not be a cloned human, but a liver or heart with matching DNA to use in a transplant operation.

While it is easy to gather public disapproval over reproductive cloning, the issues in therapeutic cloning are much more subtle. Rather than aiming at perpetuating human life at any cost, therapeutic cloning has the goal of relieving suffering. There is consensus that organ donation is a morally acceptable and even commendable choice, is this equally true when one becomes the donor for their own organs?

The moral dilemma arises as creating the possibility for self-donation (still a distant goal) lies in the use of embryonic stem cells gleaned from aborted fetuses or leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization. While public opinion against this form of stem cell research has slowed to a crawl research in the west, research continues in other parts of the world particularly China, Singapore, and Japan.

What is a Christian response to the issues of reproductive and therapeutic cloning? The answer depends upon the research and how it is pursued, but some generalization is possible. The long tradition of Christian moral thought has never seen perpetuating human life at any cost as the highest good. Our lives are in God’s hands and we do not have any obligation to extend life through extraordinary means such as cloning. Alleviating suffering and promoting healing are goods, but this must be balanced against the suffering created in pursuit of this goal.

I advocate banning of all reproductive human cloning as scientifically irresponsible and morally wrong. Issues arising in therapeutic cloning are not as easily dismissed, as the goal is to alleviate suffering. However, the scientifically possible need not become the inevitable. Decisions in this nascent form of research must be made on a case-by-case basis protecting the essential sanctity of life.

            (The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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