I was pointed to this article in the New York Times regarding cloning and I thought it was worthy of comment.
As I’ve said before, everyone should consider it manditory reading to read Wesley J. Smith’s blog (linked in my blogroll) regarding bioethics. This guy has spent the time to understand all the issues at hand and will repeat the underlying truths over and over until they finally make sense.
In this NYT article, Michael Gazzaniga tries to make the point that there are two different types of cloning: reproductive cloing and biomedical cloning. It used to be that people who thought like he did called biomedical cloning therapudic cloning, but apparantly that smokescreen has fallen out of favor.
So to make sure it was absolutely clear what was going on here I thought I would explain the ins and outs of the issue:
The whole issue fits under the broad heading of “Stem Cell Research”. Stems cells are cells that can turn into different kinds of cells, cells that could become skin cells or nerves cells or blood cells or brain cells or whatever. The problem is that not all kinds of stem cells can become every type of cell, they usually have a limited subset of cells they can become. So a stem cell that comes from the ambilical cord could become (I’m making this list up for demonstration purposes) skin or blood or nerve cells but could not become brain cells. Stem cells that come from other sources could become a different handful of types but again not all of them.
So the holy grail of stem cells is to find pluripotent stem cells, stem cells that could become ANY type of cell. This has the potential to allow for all kinds of treatments that otherwise couldn’t be done if we couldn’t find a type of stem cell that could become the needed cell type.
Up until this point, NOBODY has an ethical issue with this science. Catholics are perfectly content with stem cell treatments and the search for pluripotent ones. But after this point, the ethical delimas start.
You see, many scientists believe that the best source for pluripotent stem cells come from embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stems cells are the cells that make up recently created embryos (like in the last week or two). Us Catholics like to call that embryo a human being because, well, it is. Life begins at conception from our vantage point. Or said another way, life begins when a cell is created that can be properly fostered to divide/grow into a full grown human being. What is it before it grows? A very small human being. It’s nature doesn’t change because it grows.
So for us Catholics (and many others), the idea of taking/creating an embryo and instead of letting it develop to become a baby, destroying it so that the cells can be used for stem cell research, is very ethically troubling, just as ethically troubling as abortion because, well, it’s exactly the same thing it just has a different intent when the embryo is destroyed.
This is the point at which cloning enters the fray. You see, inherently all the scientists want is an embryo. They don’t care how it was created. So it can either be one conceived in the womb (in theory although very difficult in practice because of the difficulty of extracting the embryo from the womb without damaging it), one conceived in a petri dish OR one that was cloned.
Because of the immediately obvious opposition to using conceived embryos, many scientists have put their hope in cloning to give them the embryonic stem cells they want. This desire is magnified because of the trouble that scientists have had with concieved embryos in their stem cell research. You see, embryonic stem cells often become cancerous/dangerous to the subject when injected in the person. This is thought to be because the cells don’t have matching DNA to the person they’re being injected into. If however, the scientists were to be able to create an embryo that has exactly the same DNA as the person being treated, the hope is that they could get around the cancer/rejection problem.
So scientists have two motivations to figure out how to create cloned embryos: To potentially avoid the ethical questions about destroying life and to hopefully give a new avenue to prevent embryonic stem cell rejection.
The good news for scientists is that they have a process that promises the ability to do exactly what I outlined above: create an embryo with the DNA of the person that is to be treated. This process is called somatic cell nuclear transfer or by its initials SCNT. The process is as follows:
-An unfertilized egg is taken from a woman
-Just about any cell is taken from the subject to be treated.
-The DNA is sucked out of the egg
-The DNA is sucked out of the subject’s cell
-The DNA from the subject’s cell is placed into the egg, creating an embryo
-The embryo is stimulated into starting the division/growing process
While it is fairly easy to outline the process, there are all kinds of difficulties with it. Things like doing these processes without damaging the egg or the DNA. It’s so difficult that no one has yet been able to successfully do it for human embryos, at least that they can prove (note the recent scandal with the Korean research that was likely completely fabricated data). However, there have been numerous experiments with animals where they have successfully used this process to create a cloned animal embryo and then grown that embryo into an adult animal, Dolly the Sheep being the most famous.
So, FINALLY I get to the point of the article from the NYT!
Note that I said that SCNT was the process used to make Dolly the Sheep. In other words, it was used to do what is called reproductive cloning. Also note that the logic that got us to discussing SCNT was stem cell research and the desire for pluripotent stem cells. This is what the scientists would like to call therapudic or (in the NYT article) biomedical cloning.
The fact is that these two “different” types of cloning are EXACTLY the same thing. They can try to call them different things, but the procedure is the same and is called SCNT. The only conceivable difference is intent. However, after one has performed SCNT, no matter what the original intent was, the embryo could either be distroyed and used for medical purposes or it could be grown into what it is a miniature version of: a human being.
Finally, there are a number of additionally troubling issues specifically with SCNT the most overlooked of which is the need for eggs from women. See, they don’t create these clones from thin air. Unless some unforseen breakthough comes about, they will always need 1 egg for every clone they do. So if they’re going to treat millions of people with embryonic stem cells, they will need millions of eggs from women. This issue popped up during the Korean experiments where women were forced to donate eggs to the experiment.
Additionally, much of the focus on SCNT and embryonic stem cell research (which has yet to produce ANY treatments) takes away focus from far less troubling stem cell research using adult stem cells (of which the above mentioned ambilical cord stem cells are an example of) which not only shows much promise, but has ACTUALLY developed meaningful cures/treatments for a number of different illnesses.
However, these issues are just the icing on a very ethically troubling cake. The reality is that no matter what proponents of embryonic stem cell research say, every time they create a new stem cell line, they destroy a growing human embryo.