Human Cloning and Embryo Experimentation
Human cloning – once merely the subject of fantasy novels and science fiction movies – has become one of the most serious and prominent ethical issues of our day. In a society which has largely abandoned God and has no moral compass, the boundaries of what is deemed to be acceptable by the scientific community are increasingly being pushed away from what most people would find acceptable. The very essence of what it means to be human is being challenged in ways never thought possible in the past.
Research involving human embryos in the United Kingdom (UK) was mainly unregulated until the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act of 1990. This legislation allowed experimentation on human embryos up to 14 days of development for research in certain restricted areas such as infertility and congenital diseases. The only permitted source for these embryos was the “spare” embryos left over during In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) procedures. New regulations were passed in 2001 to allow “therapeutic cloning” to take place, whereby embryos could be artificially created in a laboratory, and the grounds for research were widened to seek treatments for other serious diseases.
Despite a resolution being adopted by the United Nations in 2005 calling for all member countries to prohibit all forms of human cloning, as they were considered to be against human dignity and the protection of human life, the UK continues to have among the most liberal legislation in this area of research in the world. Proposals for new legislation in the UK are currently passing through Parliament which seek to extend the provisions of the HFE Act still further, and allow the creation of cloned embryos which are part-human and part-animal (known as “human admixed” or “hybrid” embryos) for research purposes.
What is cloning?
A basic understanding of biology is important in understanding how cloning works. All living things are made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Each cell has a nucleus, which contains most of the genetic material (DNA). It is the DNA which passes characteristics from parents to their children. Small sequences of this DNA are called genes, and our genes influence the exact details of what we are like. Children receive half of their genes from their father (from the sperm) and half from their mother (contained in the egg). When the sperm and egg fuse (a process called fertilisation), a new human life is created.
Cloning is the creation in a laboratory of a virtually identical genetic copy of a human being, without the need for sexual reproduction. Clones can be formed in one of two ways – either by artificially splitting an embryo at a very early stage, or by transferring the nucleus of a somatic cell (a cell which is not a sperm or an egg cell) into an unfertilised egg whose nucleus has been removed through a procedure called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT). Dolly the sheep was the first cloned mammal to have been born successfully using this technique in 1997. A cell from the udder of an adult sheep was used to produce Dolly, and demonstrated that the genetic material of adult cells could be reprogrammed in a laboratory to produce an entire animal. Other animals have since been cloned including cattle, cats and horses.
Human cloning is generally classified into two types – so-called “therapeutic” cloning and “reproductive” cloning.
In “therapeutic” cloning an embryo is created which will be deliberately destroyed after being used for scientific or medical research. The aim is usually to harvest stem cells from the developing embryo which are then used in further research. Stem cells are a type of cell which can develop into virtually any other type of cell in the body, and researchers are very keen to use them to try to develop treatments for currently incurable diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Scientists have been carrying out research on early-stage human embryos in this way in Britain since legislation passed in 2001 allowed them to do so. These embryos are required by law to be destroyed by day 14 of development. A human being is therefore created with the intention of deliberately ending life within two weeks.
Despite the arguments of researchers that this work is essential, and has huge potential, no successful treatments have yet been found. In contrast, the use of adult stem cells, which do not require the creation of embryos, have yielded results and benefits to such an extent (at least 73 successful treatments) that one of the creators of Dolly the sheep has said that he is no longer using embryonic stem cells in his research, and will instead use adult stem cells.
In reproductive cloning the aim would be to place the cloned embryo into a woman’s womb so that a cloned human being would be born. This has never been done, and is banned by legislation in the UK and in many countries around the world. This has not stopped some scientists and ethicists from campaigning that such a thing should be allowed to happen. It is argued by some that this would allow childless couples to have a child, or to manipulate the cloned embryo in such a way that inherited diseases would not be passed on to the offspring.
“Human admixed” embryos Because of the shortage of human eggs to create embryos for stem cell research, scientists have powerfully lobbied Government to allow animal eggs to be used instead to create the embryos which they require. Cows’ eggs would have their nucleus removed, and a nucleus from a human cell would be placed into the bovine egg. Not all of the genetic material is contained within the nucleus, and the DNA contained within the mitochondria of the cow’s egg will also be part of the genetic make-up of the embryo. This raises the question as to whether the embryo is human or animal as it is a mixture of both. Government has argued that the embryo is “mainly human”.
What are the issues for us as Christians?
We should be extremely concerned about these cloning techniques. God made man in his image as the pinnacle of his creation (Genesis 1: 26). Human life is precious in the sight of God. Experiments on embryos involve the deliberate ending of human life something that is expressly forbidden in God’s law (Ex. 20: 13). These are not just mere collections of cells, as some scientists would have us believe, but human beings at their earliest stages of development. We must be clear that human life begins at conception, and that we are as precious and valuable in the sight of God at conception as at birth.
God’s intention is that human beings should be conceived through a man and a woman in marriage. Cloning bypasses marriage to create a human being using only the genetic material of one person. The family unit as God intended is undermined and disregarded.
Cloning also threatens the biodiversity and order which God’s creation-contains each species was made after their own kind (Genesis 1: 24-25), and God declared that it was good. To create embryos which are part-human and part-animal is to mix “kinds” which God clearly intended to be separate. Human life has a spiritual value and a dignity which God has placed above the animal kingdom (Genesis 1: 26-27), and man should not be interfering with and usurping that order.
How should we respond?
We have a duty to keep ourselves informed of the issues that are current in our society, and know how to think biblically about these matters. Christians then are to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5: 13-16) – we must speak out against evil and injustice. When our Government seeks to pass legislation which is sinful and corrupt we must call them to account. Cloning is an issue which should greatly disturb and grieve us. Let us seek to ensure that human life is valued and preserved rather than treated as a commodity which can be experimented upon and destroyed at will.
The following websites contain material on the subjects of cloning and embryo research, and have been useful in the preparation of this article:
The Christian Institute – http://www.christian.org.uk/home.htm
Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics – http:// stemcellresearch.org/
Centre for Bioethics and Human Dignity – http://www.cbhd.org/
Scottish Council for Human Bioethics – http://www.schb.org.uk/