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Four Roads To Cloning

Kris Schnee

Just days ago, Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technologies announced that it had created a cloned human embryo. Stressing that there was no intention of using its technology to create cloned humans, ACT declared that its cloning research will be used to create embryonic stem cells for medical purposes. “I’m just trying to help people who are sick,” said Michael West, the company’s CEO.

There are two very different things we can do with cloning technology using the basic techniques developed by ACT and others. We can generate embryonic stem cells matching the DNA of any person, and create new organs or tissues that will automatically be compatible with them. The other result is that we can clone humans.

For several different reasons, people are becoming outraged about both possibilities. Some of the opposition comes from ignorance about what cloning is, and from bad movies like The Sixth Day, but there are some solid ideological differences behind the debate. There are four main directions we could take from here in deciding what to do about cloning technology, all of which are worth considering.

Option 1: Ban all cloning. We could outlaw all applications of the new technology both for reproduction and for medicine. This path simplifies the ethical issues a bit; we don’t have to worry about the fundamental nature of human life or make any difficult choices. It’s kind of like banning the printing press, which would save us from all the problems that device created. If we ban all cloning technology, people will die for the sake of our uneasy consciences. People die every year because of a shortage of hearts, lungs, kidneys, and other organs, and more die because we can’t replace all of their failing tissues. An MIT student died recently for want of a bone marrow transplant; finding compatible donors is especially hard for minorities.

Option 2:Ban only medical (stem-cell) cloning. This is an interesting option, suitable for the pro-life movement. The production of stem cells involves destroying a human embryo about two weeks old or less. For those who believe that human life begins at conception, that means killing a human to save others -- shaky moral ground. In contrast, creating cloned humans does not have this problem. Although it’s important to run reproductive cloning through the standard FDA trials for safety, a cloned human will live a normal life, and is no threat to anyone. (People conceived in a lab by in-vitro fertilization already walk among us, and they are not exactly soulless killing machines.)

But why should we believe that a ball of cells with no brain, heart, etc. is morally equivalent to a living, breathing human who needs a new heart? As West says, before two weeks or so an embryo is still capable of splitting into two and becoming identical twins. If an embryo has not even “decided” whether it will become one or two people, how can it be treated as a single adult life?

Option 3: Ban reproductive but not medical cloning. This option is for people who see the medical benefits of stem cells but fear the results of reproductive cloning. Will there be a market in stolen Michael Jordan cells, or will parents expect too much from their clones because they have the same DNA? As with Option 1, this is a way of hiding from issues we don’t want to think about, and limiting people’s freedom too. Which leads us to ...

Option 4: Keeping It Legal. This way we both save lives and maintain our freedom to have children however we want. To be sure, we’ll have to wrestle with the details (like outlawing cloning without the genetic parent’s permission) and educate the public to understand that a clone is his or her own person with a unique personality and talents. This way is the most mature and sensible way to handle cloning, as it faces the moral issues head-on and restricts technology only to prevent abuses of human rights, not out of fear.

Senate action has blocked politicians’ attempt at a knee-jerk cloning ban, for now, and even the European Union has just rejected a ban on embryo research. But we still have a President and a large contingent of people who would like to deny us the use of this new technology despite its benefits, and we must work hard to win them over.