Some Scientists Reject Limitations on Research. Limitations on the manipulation and destruction of human life are looking shaky in the face of sustained efforts in a number of countries to extend human cloning. At the international level the question of cloning is once more under debate in the United Nations. A proposal by Costa Rica to ban cloning was shelved last year, but is once more on the agenda.
The president of Britain's Royal Society, Lord May, criticized efforts to promote a ban on all forms of human cloning, Reuters reported last Sunday. Last month U.S. President George Bush spoke in favor of the Costa Rican proposal in a speech to the General Assembly. But Lord May favors of a proposal made by Belgium that would outlaw cloning for reproductive purposes, but allow it for therapeutic ends.
The renewed effort to obtain a worldwide ban comes after scientists in South Korea announced earlier this year that they had cloned humans and extracted embryonic stem cells. The experiments were carried out at the Seoul National University, reported the New York Times on Feb. 12.
The United Kingdom may be the next in line to clone humans. Cloning for therapeutic purposes was made legal in 2001, but the first permission was given only recently. On Aug. 11, BBC reported that the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority gave the go-ahead to scientists at the University of Newcastle to clone human embryos. According to BBC it is believed this is the first time such a license has been granted in Europe.
After this first approval, a team led by the scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep also applied for a license to clone human embryos, BBC reported Sept. 28. Researchers at Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, led by professor Ian Wilmut, hope to develop a cure for motor neurone disease through experiments using the cloned embryos.
In the United States, scientists from Harvard University are also attempting to gain permission to clone human embryos, the Boston Globe reported Oct. 13. According to the report, two separate teams of researchers want to use cloning to produce embryonic stem cells that match the genetic material of patients with juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses. The teams are part of the recently formed Harvard Stem Cell Institute, established by the university earlier this year.
Cloning is legal in the United States, noted the Globe, but the scientists must first receive approval through an institutional review process, which could take months.
In another recent move, Singapore has opened up the possibility of cloning, Reuters reported Sept. 2. Parliament passed a law that bans human cloning for reproduction, but allows it for research purposes. The law will allow scientists to clone human embryos and keep them alive for 14 days to produce stem cells.
Japan is also moving toward allowing cloning. The country's supreme science council has voted in favor of policy recommendations that would permit human embryos to be cloned for scientific research, the Associated Press reported July 23.
Japan banned human cloning in 2001, although it does allow researchers to use embryos that aren't produced by cloning. After the vote in favor, the science council, headed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, will now ask government ministries to come up with guidelines for research using clones.
Human cloning is often defended on the grounds of compassion for those suffering serious illnesses. Typical of the claims advanced was a comment reported in the Scotsman newspaper on Sept. 29, following the application by the Roslin Institute for permission to clone. Dr. Brian Dickie, from the UK's Motor Neurone Disease Association, said the research would be a breakthrough and patients could be benefiting from it within 10 years.
A more extreme statement in favor of cloning was that of Terence Kealey, a clinical biochemist and vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham in England. In an opinion article for London's Times on June 17, Kealey stated: "Human cloning is almost magical in its potential."
Opponents of cloning were dismissed as "traditionalists" or as suffering from "medieval bigotry." "Since our only obstacle to exploring these nascent sciences is the traditionalists' invocation of mystical texts, a future of universal good health awaits us," he concluded.
Defending human life
The moves in favor of human cloning have not gone unanswered by pro-life forces. The approval by authorities in England was criticized by Dr. Helen Watt, director of the Linacre Center for Healthcare Ethics. "Therapeutic cloning creates a human life in exactly the same way as 'reproductive' cloning does," she stated in an Aug. 11 press release. "The only difference is that the embryo is intended not for birth but for laboratory destruction."
She also called into question the approval "at a time when adult stem cells are already used to treat a whole range of diseases." By contrast, "Cells from early embryos are difficult to control and have not so far produced a single treatment," added Watt.
The German Medical Council also condemned the approval, Deutsche Welle reported Aug. 13. The association called for a ban on all forms of human cloning. "We can't allow embryos to be harvested like raw materials," said association president Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe.
Germany's National Ethics Council has also called for a ban on cloning humans for research, Deutsche Welle reported Sept. 13. The body, set up in 2001 by the federal government to offer advice on ethical issues in the life sciences, announced its opposition after more than a year of study. The German Parliament voted in 2002 to outlaw cloning.
"Crescendo of hyperbole"
John Paul II commented on cloning, and research in general, in a message sent to a meeting organized by the movement Communion and Liberation in Rimini, Italy, last summer. In the text dated Aug. 6 the Pope spoke of the risk that progress in scientific knowledge and technical means "would become an absolute value, even the source itself of every value."
The result of this tendency is that "Truth and justice would no longer be superior instances, criteria of justice which man must follow in directing the actions that fuel progress itself, but would become a product of his research activity and manipulation of reality."
The Holy See also issued a declaration, dated Sept. 27, concerning the renewed U.N. debate over human cloning. The statement explains that the Holy See is in favor of research in the fields of medicine and biology.
But, continues the document, "The Holy See opposes the cloning of human embryos for the purpose of destroying them in order to harvest their stem cells," as it is "inconsistent with the ground and motive of human biomedical research, that is, respect of the dignity of human beings."
As an alternative the statement noted the proven results already obtained with adult stem cells. By contrast, "Embryonic stem cell experiments have not yet produced a single unqualified therapeutic success, not even in animal models." In fact, the declaration cited a number of scientific sources that detail the risks involved with the use of embryonic cells. In this context the text criticized "the crescendo of hyperbole" extolling the use of human clones.
In terms of a moral judgment the declaration notes that therapeutic cloning is ethically worse than when it is undertaken for reproductive purposes. In the latter case at least the human life has a chance of surviving, instead of being used "as mere laboratory material." Attention is now focused on the United Nations to see if it will step in to defend innocent human lives.