Human Cloning

Helen Watt
The Linacre Centre
Reprint with permission

Human cloning is the production of a genetic copy of some other human being. The nucleus, or central part of a cell, contains most of its genetic material. In cloning, the nucleus of a body cell (for example, a skin cell) is used to replace the nucleus of an unfertilised ovum. On activation an embryo is created, who is the clone or twin of the individual from whom the nucleus was taken. Depending on how we want to treat that embryo, cloning is called 'reproductive' or 'therapeutic'; however, the initial technique for producing the clone would be the same. It is still not clear if someone has already produced an embryonic human clone, though claims to have done this have certainly been made.

'Reproductive' cloning would occur if the aim were to transfer the clone to the body of a woman and allow it to be born. 'Therapeutic' cloning would occur if the aim were to destroy it for the sake of its parts. The parts we would want are the stem cells at the centre of the embryo, who would die when these cells were extracted. The cells could then be used in research into possible transplants for those with certain medical conditions. Stem cells are versatile cells which, it is hoped, could give rise to the kind of cells needed by an individual patient. There are, however, other sources of stem cells which do not involve embryos; for example, adult bone marrow, or umbilical cords saved at birth.

The British Government has recently come down in favour of therapeutic cloning, in a move which coincided with the publication of the Donaldson Report recommending such cloning. There will, however, be a free vote in Parliament on the Government's proposals. The Government has said it is against reproductive cloning, while a number of scientists have said in their turn that reproductive cloning is a fate we cannot avoid.

So much for a very quick background to the cloning debate. What are some of the moral issues here? What is the embryo, and is it right to treat it as a mere source of cells? Is there anything wrong with cloning per se as a way of generating life? There is no way of answering these questions without going back to the much more basic question of what it is to be a human person.

Human persons

In Christian teaching, and in all non-dualist philosophy, human persons are bodily beings, not simply spiritual beings. We are not angels, and not ghosts. We are living human wholes or organisms, who pass through a series of stages in the course of our life-span. Christians do, of course, believe in the soul; however, the soul is not just a thinking thing: it is the body's life-principle -- what makes the body alive. It is therefore impossible for there to be a living human body without a human soul. To find out when the soul begins (and therefore when the person begins) it is sufficient to find out when the living body comes into existence.

There is now good evidence that a living human body is present from the one-cell stage. We no longer believe, as did Aquinas, that some kind of non-human life is formed by the semen acting on menstrual blood. The embryo is human through and through. It is not some unspecified vegetable thing, or some unspecified animal thing. It is a human organism -- a rational kind of being -- a being which is rational when healthy and mature. It is, in other words, a person.

There are arguments against this position, but they do not stand investigation. Some claim that the embryo cannot be a human individual, because it may twin. One would hope that cloning, if it does nothing else, will put this argument to rest. Now more than ever, it is very clear that living individuals can give rise to one or more new individuals, at which point the 'parent' individual is either destroyed, or survives together with its offspring. A plant can give rise to a shoot; an amoeba can give to new amoebae; a sheep can give rise to her clone. In the case of human embryos, the fact that an embryo may split in half and thus destroy itself in some environments does not mean the embryo could not develop normally in more favourable environments. Providing a conceptus has the tendency to develop, in a favourable environment, into an older human being, that conceptus is itself a human being, whatever its current situation. Unlike the living parts from which it is created -- whether sperm and ovum or ovum and nucleus -- the embryo has the very different powers of a living human whole. The fact that its cells are still very versatile, and can be used to form different kinds of tissue -- or, perhaps, new human beings -- does not mean these cells are not now forming part of an existing human being.

Some claim that the embryo cannot have human status in view of its physical appearance. The early embryo is very small indeed; it is also quite unlike the older human being in its structure and shape. It is relatively easy to empathise with a foetus, once we know what it looks like and what it can do. It is much harder to empathise with a being as different in appearance as the early human embryo.

These considerations are emotionally powerful, but have little rational appeal. Our rights as human beings do not depend on how we look, but on what we are. It would be quite unacceptable if, for example, newborn babies with disfigurements were treated as 'non-persons', on the grounds that they had less emotional appeal than other children. In the same way, it is unacceptable to say that the embryo is a subhuman being on the grounds of its challenging appearance. Human beings are human organisms and go through different stages, just like other living things. A caterpillar is the same insect as the butterfly into which it grows. In the same way, the embryo is the same human being as the foetus, the infant and the adult, even though his or her appearance goes through very different stages. The primitive streak, for example, does not come out of nowhere, but is carefully constructed by the embryo itself. One stage produces another: there are no radical breaks.

Some claim that the embryo cannot have human status because it may naturally miscarry. However, many humans are at risk from natural causes, but still have human rights. Babies in poor countries have human moral status, no less than babies in Britain, who have a better chance of survival. A child who may die early still needs to be cared for, and may never be purposely killed on the grounds that his or her life is already at risk.

When we end the life of a human being, we deprive him or her of something of value: his or her future existence, however long or short that may be. The embryo is not, of course, aware that this is happening, but will be deprived nonetheless. It is not necessary to take an interest in something in order to have an interest in something. We have an interest in what would do us good, whether or not we know this. One of our interests is the interest in life: the interest in the good inherent in our presence in the world. Just as this interest must be respected in newborn children, so that we may not attack them for their organs, it must be respected in every human being as soon as he or she exists at all. There is no such thing as a living human being with subhuman moral status. The new human being has interests and rights with regard to its own future welfare from the very start of its life - whether fertilisation or cloning.

Reproductive cloning

What are some of the other moral issues raised by human cloning? Apart from the issue of how the embryo is treated, there is the related issue of how the embryo is created. To discuss this, it will, perhaps, be helpful to look at a case of 'reproductive' cloning, where the clone would be created for the purpose of bringing it to term. What, if anything, is wrong with creating a clone with this purpose in mind?

Reproductive cloning, where the clone is transferred to the body of a woman and allowed to be born, is still frowned on by many. However, some philosophers and scientists have started to defend this kind of cloning. Some have pointed out that cloning could be the only way for a man who was totally infertile to have a child to whom he was genetically related. They have also pointed out that cloning could enable those who carry genetic disorders to avoid passing on those disorders to their children. It has been suggested that cloning could be a way for single women or lesbians to reproduce themselves without genetic material from a man. Some have defended cloning simply as a means of obtaining an identical twin of someone we desire to replicate. For example, parents of a dead child could clone the child so as to 'reproduce' him or her.

Reproductive cloning, if not quite as bad from the moral point of view as therapeutic cloning, would nonetheless be seriously wrong. It would be wrong, first, because of the medical risks to the children created, and to the women who gestate them. To end up with Dolly, one surviving sheep, 277 embryos, or apparent embryos, were created. Clearly, to create 277 human clones so that one could survive and be born as a baby would be morally repugnant.

Cloning would be a production procedure, and for that reason would be likely to result in some of the same attitudes to the human product that we find in IVF. It is sadly the case that IVF embryos are treated more as products or possessions of their parents than as new human beings with a right to be nurtured and protected. Just as IVF embryos are created in excess numbers and discarded if 'spare' or abnormal, the same would be likely to happen in the case of clone embryos. Indeed, clone embryos would be even more likely to be discarded on the grounds of abnormality, if it is true that abnormalities would be more common in these embryos.

However, cloning also raises further problems concerning the production of human beings who are genetically identical to other human beings. Children need a sense of separateness both from their parents and from others for their healthy psychological development. Normal human procreation carries with it a valuable symbolic content, not only at the level of sex itself, but at that of fertilisation. The fusion of the parents' genetic contributions to form a new and distinct individual presents itself as at once a symbol of relatedness, and at the same time one of difference. The child is genetically related to both parents, but is still genetically unique, just as his or her life is both a new start and owes a debt to the past.

The child is not only physically and visibly different from his or her parents, but (except in the case of identical twins) is also different from his or her siblings. The contingent nature of procreation -- the unpredictability of the child's makeup, both mental and physical -- also carries with it a valuable message both for the child and for the parents. Genetic novelty and unpredictability serve as a reminder of the forward-looking and flexible nature of good parenthood and healthy child development: of the way in which parents and child should live their lives with a certain novelty and freedom.

Parenthood involves, or should involve, a going 'out of oneself' towards the other: an acceptance of difference. The temptation for parents is, however, to seek excessive control over their children's characteristics, and to value their children only according to how well they meet their own requirements. Cloning will do nothing to help parents guard against this particular temptation, as cloning will itself involve a very high degree of parental control. Even in the case of natural procreation, children will often need to struggle hard to establish a separate identity from their parents. How much more of a struggle will be needed when the child is genetically identical either to one social parent, or to someone the parent or parents want reproduced?

It may be objected that clones are found in nature, in the form of identical twins, and that there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, identical twins can experience problems in their social and personal development if they are brought up in ways which do not adequately recognise their separate identity. Such problems would surely be more likely in the case of cloning, since whereas twins are not deliberately created as identical clones would be created, at least in some cases, in order to resemble someone else. Those who have gone to such lengths as cloning to ensure similarity between two human beings have shown, by that very fact, their wish that these two human beings be very much alike.

The difference in age between the clone and the original would exacerbate the problem. The clone would see the person from whom he or she was cloned acquiring certain features, whether positive or negative, and would feel him or herself in tension with this pre-existing life. Similarly, the cloned human being would feel drawn to compare him or herself with the clone. Even if clones would never meet each other or the person from whom they were cloned, the mere knowledge that genetic counterparts to themselves existed would be likely to give both the clones and the original a sense of incompleteness, and prevent them, at least to some degree, fromconcentrating on their separate lives.

The child's sense of confusion based on his or her all-too evident resemblance to the person cloned would be compounded by confusion with regard to his or her lineage. Whereas in the case of IVF involving donation, the child is deprived of one or both genetic parents, in the case of cloning there is not even a genetic parent, in the familiar sense, of whom he or she can be deprived. Even where two people of different sexes have been used to produce a clone, he or she will have literally no genetic parents in the normal sense of the term. Instead, he or she will have a provider or providers of a nucleus and/or an ovum from which the nucleus has been removed. Cloning is asexual in a more radical sense than IVF, in that two people of different sexes are no longer required. Thus a single woman could have a child using only her own genetic material: surely a remarkably solitary, not to say narcissistic form of procreation. A lesbian couple could have a child, using a nucleus from one woman and an enucleated ovum from the other. In either of these cases, the child would be deprived -- not by accident, but by deliberate choice -- of both a social and a genetic father. It is difficult to argue that a child subjected to this dual deprivation would be favourably affected in her relations with the sex which contributed neither to conception nor to postnatal care.


Finally, to return to therapeutic cloning, it is precisely this lack of a genetic parent that will make the clone embryo particularly available to interested researchers. While at least some IVF parents feel parental concern for their embryos, people from whose cells a clone is created may not feel like parents at all. Of course, we need ova to create clones, and women are currently rather reluctant to donate their ova to create embryos for research. For this reason, there is a real possibility researchers may end up using ova from female aborted foetuses. There is already a practice of asking women who plan to have abortions to agree to the foetus being used in research. Foetal eggs, in particular, are already used in research, and will no doubt be used again.

In conclusion: cloning raises all the problems raised by IVF and similar procedures, plus some problems of its own. Cloning should therefore be avoided, in both the 'therapeutic', and the 'reproductive' form. Cloning involves the production of a child to predetermined specifications: a child who will have no genetic parents in the true sense of the term. If the child created dies in the lab, to provide stem cells for someone else's use, this is hardly an improvement. Embryos are not raw material for our medical or scientific projects. They are young human beings, whose lives and bodies ought to be respected. Those who are not sure that this is the case would do well to act as if it were. If there's even a good chance the embryo is a human being - and, at very least, there seems to be that - research on clone and other embryos should be utterly excluded.