Human cloning is finally here, and it is going to spark a political conflagration. First, some background.
The cloning era began when Dolly the sheep was manufactured in 1996. Dolly was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). This is accomplished by removing the nucleus from a skin or other cell (in Dolly’s case, a mammary gland cell, hence her naming after Dolly Parton). That nucleus is then inserted into an egg whose nucleus has been removed. The engineered egg is stimulated, and if the cloning works, an embryo comes into being through asexual reproduction. Once that happens, the cloning is complete.
If the cloned embryo is implanted in a mother—often called “reproductive cloning”—and all goes well, it develops like a natural embryo through the fetal stage to birth. Hello Dolly.
Many mammals are now routinely cloned—mice, pigs, cattle, to name a few. Monkeys proved a difficult species to create via SCNT until a few years ago, and even now scientists have not succeeded in bringing a cloned monkey to birth.
Human cloning has been even more technically challenging. But an international group of scientists announced in the June 6 Cell—a prominent, peer-reviewed scientific journal—that they created scores of cloned human embryos, developing four of them in a dish for about 10 days to the blastocyst stage (about 150-200 cells). This is the stage at which embryos created in vitro are usually implanted if they are to be gestated to birth. However, that was not the purpose of the recent experiments. Instead, the cloned embryos were destroyed and embryonic stem cell lines created—a process sometimes called “therapeutic cloning.” While these scientists have no interest in reproductive cloning, if a cloned baby is ever born, their experiments will have been a big step toward making it possible.
The successful cloning of human beings—whether for research or birth—is momentous: Even if the technique is used only in pursuit of biological knowledge and medical treatments, those will come at the very high ethical price of manufacturing human life for the purpose of harvesting it like a corn crop—that is, for the purpose of destroying it.
Cloning, moreover, is essential to foreseeable endeavors such as the genetic engineering of embryos, the creation of human/animal chimeras, the gestation of cloned fetuses in artificial wombs as a means of obtaining patient-compatible organs, and eventually the birth of cloned babies. With the struggle over whether and to what extent the technology should be regulated still unresolved, we can expect fiery contention going forward over matters like the following:
The legal status of human cloning. Competing bills are likely to be introduced in Congress and state legislatures, as they have been in the past, to outlaw human cloning. The devil will be in the definitions.
In particular, cloning opponents should beware phony bans that pretend to outlaw cloning but actually legalize the SCNT process using human DNA. This sleight-of-hand has been tried before. In 2007, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) coauthored the Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Protection Bill, which not only would not have banned human cloning, it would have legalized it by codifying an inaccurate definition: “The term ‘human cloning’ means implanting or attempting to implant the product of nuclear transplantation into a uterus or the functional equivalent of a uterus.”
But cloning is the asexual creation of the cloned embryo, regardless of whether it is implanted. A real ban would make it illegal to use human cells and nuclei in SCNT.
Public funding. President George W. Bush triggered intense debate by placing minor restrictions on the funding of embryonic stem cell research by the National Institutes of Health. Despite the false claim that Bush had banned embryonic stem cell research, he actually funded it to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
In contrast, the federal government is already prohibited by law from financing human cloning. Under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, federal funds may not be used to create embryos for use in research or to support research that harms or destroys embryos. President Obama circumvents Dickey-Wicker by sophistry: Private money pays for the destruction of the embryos, then federal funds support research on the resulting stem cell lines.
That workaround isn’t available when the point is precisely the creation of embryos for research. These will not be “leftover embryos” from in vitro fertilization—the current funding requirement. Moreover, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is not a permanent federal statute. Rather, like the Hyde Amendment prohibiting Medicaid funding of abortion, it must be passed each year as part of the budgetary process. Now that human cloning has arrived, look for its proponents to oppose reauthorizing Dickey-Wicker, even as opponents mount an effort to make the amendment permanent.
Exploitation of women. SCNT requires one egg for each attempt at cloning, but human eggs for use in research are in short supply. So the biotech industry is seeking legal authorization to pay women for their eggs. The harvesting of eggs, however, can harm the supplier. The potential side effects include infection, loss of fertility, stroke, and in rare cases death.
The recent Cell paper paid a great deal of attention to the egg issue. Apparently, not just any eggs can be used if cloning is to be successful. “SCNT reprogramming is dependent on human oocyte [egg] quality,” the authors write. Indeed, most of the eggs the researchers used provided poor embryos, but the four highest-quality cloned embryos—those from which embryonic stem cells were derived—all grew from eggs supplied by the same donor. This, the paper says, “warrants further studies . . .to elucidate the genetic and clinical parameters associated with optimal oocyte quality for human SCNT.”
Yikes. Not only will cloning encourage treating women’s reproductive assets as marketable commodities, but a concentrated search may soon be on for women who can produce prime cloning-quality eggs—furthering the objectification of female biological functions. Expect an additional political conflagration over legal efforts to protect women from being exploited by the biotechnology industry.
The fact that human beings can be cloned is a scientific triumph, but it is also an ethical earthquake. Because these experiments offer the potential to advance scientific knowledge, they will tempt us—always for “the best” reasons—to set aside our convictions about the intrinsic dignity of all human life.