Abortion, Stem Cells, and Cloning

Rebecca Taylor
Date: October 25, 2005
Reproduced with Permission
Mary Meets Dolly

On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Roe vs. Wade, that the laws outlawing abortion in Texas were unconstitutional because a woman had a right to privacy, guaranteed by the Constitution. Suddenly, the unborn had no legal protection in the United States. But Roe vs. Wade did not just deny legal protection to the unborn; it catapulted the United States toward the reality of human cloning. Gregory Pence, a pro-cloning bioethicist, could not be more correct when he writes, "To say that embryos are not persons and cannot be studied and killed in research is contradictory. Perhaps this shows once again that the cloning debate is really about abortion."1

The issue clearly hinges on the question of when human life begins. The Catholic Church states that human life begins at conception. When the 23 chromosomes of the sperm mingle with the 23 chromosomes of the egg, they rearrange and create a truly unique organism, a human being, whose DNA is distinct from any other organism that has come before. About this, there can be no debate. David Prentice writes in his book Stem Cells and Cloning, "Scientifically the embryo is a human being, just starting out on its developmental journey."2

Whether an embryo is a "person" and should have legal protection under the law is another issue. The Catholic Church teaches that a human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception. This is because there is no other point in human development where a human being suddenly appears. To designate any other point of development as the one where a human being emerges is simply arbitrary. Lee M. Silver, professor of Biology at Princeton University, does not believe an embryo is a person, but he writes, "Once fertilization is complete, there are no isolated moments along the way where you can point at an embryo or fetus and say that it is substantially different from the way it was a few minutes, or even hours earlier."3

Abortion and Stem Cell Research

DNA is the gold standard for identification in every U.S. court of law, and we are personally identifiable as a unique human organism by our DNA, from the moment we are conceived until the day we die. Yet, Roe vs. Wade denies us legal protection until we are born. If there is no protection for the embryo in the womb, there is no protection for the embryo in the test tube. The upshot? Scientists are free to engage in embryonic stem cell research with leftover IVF embryos, embryos that will be destroyed to harvest their stem cells. And, because there is no federal ban in the United States on human somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), better known as therapeutic cloning, scientists in many states are free to create as many cloned human embryos as they like and destroy them for their stem cells.

Unfortunately, scientists will perform incredible feats of illogic to obfuscate what they are actually doing. They will try to convince the general public that they are not creating and destroying human lives and that, therefore, their research is not unethical. Michael D. West, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technologies (a Massachusetts company currently cloning humans to harvest their stem cells), wants to make a distinction between an embryo and a "pre-implantation embryo" or "pre-embryo." He contends that a pre-embryo exists from the moment of conception to approximately 14 days, when an embryo would implant into the uterus and the differentiation of cells would begin. He likens the pre-embryo to an egg or sperm cell. This is undoubtedly false a sperm or egg cell is not a complete organism. A sperm cell will not implant into a uterus and grow into a fetus, all on its own.

Silver acknowledges that fact: "I'll let you in on a little secret. The term pre-embryo has been embraced wholeheartedly by IVF practitioners for reasons that are political, not scientific.... The term pre-embryo is useful in the political arena where decisions are made about whether to allow early embryo (now called pre-embryo) experimentation as well as in the confines of a doctor's office where it can be used to allay moral concerns that might be expressed by IVF patients."4 But even Silver tries to dehumanize the embryo when he says that it is only life in the "general sense," not life in the "specific [human] sense."5 Yet he will admit that there is no way to know for sure when human life in the "general sense" becomes life in the "specific sense."6

Many other researchers and embryonic stem cell advocates say that an embryo is not a human being, that it is no more special than a skin or muscle cell. They could not be more wrong. Wesley J. Smith, lawyer and author, puts it plainly, "Organisms are integrated creatures, cells are merely parts of creatures.... Biologically, therefore, an embryo and a cell are utterly distinct."7 Although the law of the land does not recognize the embryo as a person with a legal right to life, even a cloned human embryo is most definitely a human being. And a human being, says the Church, should be respected as a person from the first moment of his or her existence.

Products of Abortion

Abortion obviously produces aborted fetuses. The taboo of using aborted fetal tissue for research is not a deterrent for some researchers; such tissue is just another tool in their toolbox. West freely admits that he has used aborted fetal tissue to advance his research. "By scrambling around and persuading, I found a means of getting early human fetal testes and tried to grow the human embryonic germ cell in a dish." But, for his research, those germ cells were too old. In his words, "I needed five week old fetuses. But where could I get those? Women do not abort fetuses that early, when they are just learning they are pregnant."8

It is not just testes from aborted male babies that researchers want. Some want eggs from aborted females babies as well. The much-ignored reality of therapeutic cloning is this: to become a viable commercial therapy, an enormous amount of human eggs are required. For every attempt at cloning to harvest embryonic stem cells, it usually requires more than one human egg. In South Korea, it took 242 human eggs to derive one human clone. One such clone can only provide one stem cell line for one patient. Prentice estimates that it would take 800 million donated human eggs (from women of childbearing age) to treat just the diabetics in the United States with embryonic stem cells derived from therapeutic cloning.9 At a current cost of about $2,000 for less than a dozen eggs, the cost alone of retrieving 800 million eggs makes therapeutic cloning, as a viable treatment option, impossible. So, researchers are already looking to harvest eggs from aborted fetuses. All of a woman's eggs come to be during her fetal development. A 20-week-old female has about 7 million eggs, the most she will ever have. Lori B. Andrews, a reproductive rights lawyer, makes the connection: "With over a million abortions a year, some scientists have begun to think the unthinkable using female fetuses as a source of eggs...."10

Researchers also use aborted fetus to further embryonic stem cell research. Elaine Dewar, an investigative reporter, in her book The Second Tree, asks a stem cell researcher about how he grows his embryonic stem cell lines:

So I asked, what do you grow these [embryonic] cell lines on now? On minced up human embryos, he replied. I cringed. "Isn't there an ethical issue in that?" "You can take it from abortions. In the human you can use earlier embryos, from the first trimester," he said.11

Abortion and Reproductive Cloning

In addition to opening the door to the destruction of innocent human life for parts, Roe vs. Wade gave legitimacy to something called "reproductive rights." Roe vs. Wade states that an individual, married or single, has the right "to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child."

Those "reproductive rights" are fueling the push for reproductive cloning. If reproductive rights include terminating a pregnancy, then do they also apply to those who want to get pregnant by any means possible? There are many who believe so. John A. Robertson, law professor at the University of Texas, contends that, with the absolute right to abort a fetus, women also have an absolute right to any "non-coital technology" they need to bear children, including reproductive cloning.12 This sentiment is echoed in the words of Randy Wicher, a cloning activist: "My decision to clone myself should not be the government's business, or Cardinal O'Connor's, any more than a woman's decision to have an abortion is. Cloning is highly significant. It's part of the reproductive rights of every human being."13

While not illegal in the U.S., reproductive cloning is considered unsafe at present because of the possibilities of genetic abnormalities arising from the cloning process. Abortion would be an essential component of making reproductive cloning a reality. Pence proposes the following solution:

If the primary moral objection to reproductive cloning is that it will likely result in genetic errors in reprogramming, then of course we want research to prevent that kind of problem. But how do we do that? The best way is to see how cloned embryos develop and to study them, gestating them in female chimpanzees, artificial wombs, or human volunteers, then aborting them to see which are normal and which are not, then experimenting to see how to create only normally developing embryos/fetuses.14

Roe vs. Wade did more than just legalize abortion across the Unites States. By denying the human embryo any rights, it has enabled the current practices of embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. These, in turn, are just stops on the way to reproductive cloning. With legalized killing of human embryos in the womb, we have no moral grounds upon which to object to killing them in a test tube. If Roe vs. Wade had upheld the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, the creation and destruction of embryos for research would not be possible.


1 Gregory E. Pence, Cloning After Dolly: Who's Still Afraid? Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004, p.64 [Back]

2 David A. Prentice, Stem Cells and Cloning, Pearson Education, Inc., San Francisco, 2003, p. 27 [Back]

3 Lee M. Silver, Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, Avon Books, 1997, p. 48 [Back]

4 Ibid, p. 39 [Back]

5 Ibid, p. 41 [Back]

6 Ibid., p. 48 [Back]

7 Wesley J. Smith, Consumer's Guide to the Brave New World, San Francisco, Encounter Books, 2004, p. 34 [Back]

8 Michael D. West, The Immortal Cell: One Scientist's Quest to Solve the Mystery of Aging, p. 148 [Back]

9 David A. Prentice, Stem Cells and Cloning, p.26 [Back]

10 Lori B. Andrews, The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology, p. 213 [Back]

11 Elaine Dewar, The Second Tree: Stem Cells, Clones, Chimeras, and Quests for Immortality, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2004, p. 311 [Back]

12 Wesley J. Smith, Consumer's Guide to the Brave New World, p. 144 [Back]

13 Lori B. Andrews, The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology, p. 245 [Back]

14 Gregory E. Pence, Cloning After Dolly: Who's Still Afraid?, p. 72 [Back]