Reproductive Technology: From Artificial Insemination to Cloning

Rebecca Taylor
Nov. 2, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

The top of the slippery slope: artificial insemination

Many believe that advances in cloning and stem cell research, as well as their ethical implications, are recent developments. Actually we have been careening down a slippery slope toward a biotechnical "brave new world" for quite some time. This will be an unpopular topic for many Catholics, but to ignore the path that has led to our current dilemmas would be to side-step issues that have led us to the reality of human cloning.

The Catholic Church is very clear about the nature of conjugal love: the procreative and unitive aspects of sexual intercourse are two halves of the same act. Each child is meant to be conceived out of love for love. To "create" a child outside conjugal love is immoral. A child from the sexual of a man and a woman is begotten, not made, a gift from God. Children reproduced any other way, are no longer seen as the God-given gifts they are, but as man-made products. This is why, though it may not be immediately apparent, the road to our current moral dilemmas began with the acceptance of reproduction without the conjugal act. It began with artificial insemination.

Artificial insemination is a procedure where sperm is placed in a woman's uterus, cervix or vagina by means other than sexual intercourse. The sperm can come from the woman's spouse, called artificial insemination by husband (AIH) or from a sperm donor, called artificial insemination by donor (AID). In either case, reproduction is achieved without sexual union.

The first documented case of a woman becoming pregnant by AID was in 1884. A Quaker woman and her merchant husband, realizing they could not conceive, approached Dr. William Pancoast of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. When Dr. Pancoast presented this couples case to his medical students, one of the students suggested

… that semen should be collected from the "best looking" member of the class, and used to inseminate the woman. Dr. Pancoast agreed to the experiment. Without informing either the woman or her husband of his intentions, he called the merchants wife back under the pretense of doing another examination. The woman was anesthetized, and the procedure was carried out. It wasn't until it became evident that the woman had actually conceived that her husband was informed.1

There are two important aspects of this case. First, in the absence of conjugal love, procreation by AID is reduced to a "shopping list" of desired traits. Second, the fact the doctor and his medical students did not deem it necessary to inform the wife or husband is evidence of a mentality that continues to pervade the business of creating life through artificial means: try it first and ask whether it is ethical later.

For several decades, artificial insemination  with sperm from a man other than a woman's husband (even with his consent)  was considered adultery and grounds for divorce. Any child conceived through AID was considered illegitimate. Before the 1960s, society still felt that procreation and sexual intercourse were linked and it was a violation of marriage vows to create a child with the genetic material of a person outside that marriage.

In the mid-1960s, attitudes began to change. Then in the 1970's the sperm bank was born. Heterosexual couples, lesbian couples and, single women could shop for sperm at the local bank. They could take their list of desired traits and pick an appropriate donor. No longer were children created in the image and likeness of Love, but by the image and likeness of their parent's personal checklist. Suddenly, human genetic material was a commodity. No longer a personal, procreative miracle, human reproduction was now a procedure.

Artificial insemination is considered commonplace in our society. Who can begrudge a desperate infertile couple the chance to have a child? After all, it is just a little assistance. Unfortunately, artificial insemination is not that simple. It has opened the door to other reproductive procedures. R.H. Foote writes on the history of artificial insemination (AI), "The acceptance of AI technology worldwide provided the impetus for developing other technologies such as cryopreservation and sexing of sperm…embryo harvesting, freezing, culture and transfer, and cloning."2 (My emphasis)

From artificial insemination to IVF

If we can give a little assistance to infertile men by way of artificial insemination, of course, we need to offer help to infertile women. Which brings us to our next stop on the road to cloning: in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF is a procedure where several eggs, harvested from a woman through hyper-ovulation induced by drugs, are fertilized with sperm in a test tube or culture dish, creating several embryos. The best 2 or 3 embryos are then implanted into the uterus, and the rest are frozen for later use.

While IVF has given many infertile couples the blessings of children, it has many pitfalls. In the desperation to have a child, couples have abandoned the unitive aspect of procreation and opened a Pandora's box. In IVF, third parties can donate the eggs, the sperm, and the uterus for that matter.

There are approximately 400,000 left-over IVF embryos in deep freeze in the United States alone. This is the dark side of IVF. Procreation outside the body, outside the martial act, creates these "spare" human beings, then leaves them in a frozen limbo. One IVF doctor told Lori B. Andrews, a reproductive rights lawyer, "I have 300 unclaimed embryos in my freezer. I've tried tracking down the couples, but they must have moved. Can I give them to other couples in a prenatal adoption? Or should I just terminate them?" Ms. Andrews' response is to ask the obvious question, "How can couples 'forget' they have a frozen embryo? Isn't that like a man conveniently forgetting he has a wife?"3

These IVF "leftovers" force us into a moral conundrum: what do we do with these 400,000 souls on ice? Because of Roe v. Wade, they have no legal protection. If we terminate them, the Church's teaching clearly states that we would be destroying innocent human beings. The only ethical thing to do would be to have willing couples adopt these embryos. The Snowflake Embryo Adoption program fosters such adoption. At a press conference in May 2005, President Bush appeared with 21 children who were adopted as embryos. He wanted to drive home the point that there are no such things as "spare embryos" left over from IVF, only unique individual human lives.4

From IVF to embryonic stem cells

But, many in science and in Congress think they have a much better use for these embryos. If they are going to be terminated or remain indefinitely in the deep freeze, why not experiment on them? Enter the debate on embryonic stem cells, the next stop on the road to cloning. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are cells that are undifferentiated, and therefore, in theory, can create any cell in the body. The hope is that these cells will be able to cure many diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

Of course, everyone wants cures for devastating diseases like diabetes but, in harvesting embryonic stem cells for these cures, the embryo is destroyed. This would be a huge step in further devaluing human life. Lawyer and author Wesley J. Smith worries, "that destroying embryos for the purpose of harvesting their parts reduces nascent human life to the moral status of penicillin mold."5 And while he sees no problem with IVF, he acknowledges the moral implications: "More to the point, if an innovation as benign as a medical treatment to help infertile couples has led to the Rubicon where we have come to look upon 'spare' IVF embryos as mere bundles of cells rather than as potential people, what might happen to our morality when scientists wield the godlike power to refashion our biological nature?"6

From embryonic stem cells to cloning

For any stem cell treatment to work, it requires a match between the tissue and the recipient, just like in any organ donation. Even with a match, because the stem cells were derived from an embryo that was not genetically identical to the recipient, the patient will have to take drugs to prevent a rejection of the stem cells by the immune system. The current complaint among embryonic stem cell researchers is that there are not enough stem cell lines to provide a good library for all tissue types in the human population. Michael West, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell technologies, estimates that, at a minimum, "we would need a library of a hundred thousand cells in the future to be able to ensure that every patient in need …could have even a close match."7 Even if all couples using IVF donated all of the 400,000 frozen embryos, not all would result in viable stem cell lines. David Prentice, a former researcher at Indiana State University, estimates that only 1 in 10 embryos will create a viable stem cell line.8 That means that only 40,000 stem cell lines would result from all of the leftover IVF embryos; less than half of what West estimates is needed.

In reality, using "leftover" IVF embryos for embryonic stem cell research is a red herring. Once we get comfortable with destroying human life to harvest desirable biological material, then we can start creating human life for that same purpose. What embryonic stem cell researchers really want is federal funding to engage in therapeutic cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). In SCNT, the donated eggs, normally used in IVF, would instead be emptied of their donor's DNA, and the DNA from a patient's skin or muscle cell would be injected, creating a "delayed twin" of that patient, a clone. This clone (as much a human being as the original) would be allowed to develop to a certain stage. Then it would be destroyed in order to harvest cells or organs that researchers say will be a genetic match for the original patient.

No need to wait for the donation of "left-over" IVF embryos, cloning researchers will create a customized twin just for you. Because cloning or SCNT is not banned in the United States, companies like Advance Cell Technologies in Massachusetts are already cloning humans and trying to harvest their stem cells. Michael Cook, editor of BioEdge, a newsletter on bioethics, warns us about embryonic stem cell research: "The appetite of stem cell scientists for tinkering with human life is insatiable. It must be resisted."9

Do not be misled, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is cloning, and therapeutic cloning to harvest cell or organs is the same as reproductive cloning. In mastering therapeutic cloning to produce embryonic stem cells, researchers would be mastering the early stages of reproductive cloning. Gregory Pence, a pro-cloning bioethicist, has it correct when he writes, "Scientists are naïve to think they can ban reproductive cloning and go ahead studying embryonic [therapeutic] cloning."10 Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said it best, "Cloning is cloning. That is why it should all be illegal."11 If the United States continues to refuse to ban cloning or SCNT because of the promise of embryonic stem cells, rest assured that technology will be used to create a cloned child.

In addition, the same techniques perfected by IVF are the ones scientists are using to clone human beings. Silver points out that "[Cloning] requires only the equipment and facilities that are already standard or easy to obtain by…in vitro fertilization clinics across the country and across the world. With a little practice on some spare eggs, skilled IVF practitioners could quickly master the published techniques and improve upon them."12 Michael Bishop, a scientist who clones farm animals, says that he has seen pictures of equipment in IVF clinics that is used for cloning. He suggests that IVF clinics are already attempting to produce cloned children. Bishop told Elaine Dewar, an investigative reporter, "We are already cloning people, just not calling them clones. Who's gonna know? …How would you know unless you compared the DNA?"13

Once one accepts human reproduction without sexual intercourse, there is no moral ground upon which to object to any means of creating human beings, including reproductive cloning. With IVF becoming more mainstream, we become more comfortable with the idea of creating human life the "new-fashioned" way, without the uniting of a man and a woman in sexual intercourse. Many in ethics and medicine are not only comfortable with creating human life in test tubes, they salivate at the opportunity manipulate and destroy that life in the name of scientific advancement. Lori B. Andrews, a reproductive rights lawyer, has watched our rapid progression down the slippery slope from artificial insemination to cloning. She profoundly writes, "With artificial insemination acceptance took decades; with in vitro fertilization, it took years. The attitude toward cloning shifted in a matter of months."14 Then she admits, "I had helped make reproductive technologies invincible, and facing human cloning was like greeting Frankenstein's monster for the first time. The creation had gone amok."15


1 [Back]

2 R.H. Foote, "The history of artificial insemination: Selected notes and notables," American Society of Animal Science 2002, p. 1 [Back]

3 Lori B. Andrews, The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology p. 66-67 [Back]

4 Night Light Christian Adoptions, [Back]

5 Wesley J. Smith, Consumer's Guide to the Brave New World, San Francisco, Encounter Books, 2004, p. 9 [Back]

6 Ibid. [Back]

7 Michael D. West, The Immortal Cell: One Scientist's Quest to Solve the Mystery of Aging, Doubleday, 2003, p.192 [Back]

8 David Prentice, Stem Cells and Cloning, Pearson Education, Inc., San Francisco, 2003, p. 9 [Back]

9 Michael Cook, "Promise of miracles a false one," The Australian, May 23, 2005 [Back]

10 Gregory E. Pence, Cloning After Dolly: Who's Still Afraid?, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004, p. 72 [Back]

11 Ibid. p. 69 [Back]

12 Lee M. Silver, Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning will Transform the American Family, Avon Books, New York, 1997 p. 93 [Back]

13 Elaine Dewar, The Second Tree: Stem Cells, Clones, Chimeras, and the Quest for Immortality, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, p. 162 [Back]

14 Lori B. Andrews, The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology, p. 260 [Back]

15 Ibid. p. 257 [Back]