Let's face it. Not all of us enjoyed our biology class in high school or college. We may remember what a cell looks like, but we don't all remember the difference between a nucleus and a nucleolus. Maybe the first time we heard of clones was from the title of a Star Wars movie. Nevertheless, the Christian media and talk show hosts continue to bring up the topics of stem cells and human cloning, and we think that we should be opposed to them but we're really not sure of all the details. After all, it is really too complex and can't we ever be in favor of something for a change? For those of you who would agree with the above sentiments, take heart, dear reader, finally here's an article on biotechnology "for the rest of us."
Cloning — What Is It?
What is cloning anyway? Cloning is simply the duplication of a living organism. It is done in an asexual fashion (without mixing an egg and sperm). It's already been done with such animals as mice, pigs, horses, and sheep (remember Dolly?), and South Korean scientists Hwang and Moon recently reported doing it with human embryos. These researchers took an egg cell from a female volunteer and removed the nucleus from it.
Remember, the nucleus is where DNA is stored that provides our cells with the information necessary to divide, grow, and function. The doctors took this "empty" egg and fused it with another nearby adult cell that still had its nucleus. This egg began to grow and divide as if it had been fertilized by a sperm cell. In other words, the egg then became an embryo, the earliest stage of a human being. That embryo now contained a full set of DNA or genetic material that would allow it to divide and grow. If this embryo were to be skillfully placed in a woman's womb it is theoretically possible that it would grow into a newborn baby. This form of cloning is referred to as reproductive cloning — a newborn is created with only one genetic parent.
There are a few groups of people who have expressed interest in the reproductive cloning of human beings. These include some infertile couples, gay couples, those who have lost loved ones, and even UFO cultists. It is believed that the majority of Americans have a natural abhorrence of such cloning efforts — the so-called "yuck factor."
Cloning — The Problems
There are a number of social reasons why human cloning should be banned. The procedure has a high failure rate and a high rate of fetal malformation. It results in the commodification of humans, i.e. cloned babies are products to be purchased. Concerns of the legal status of clones have also been voiced due to this commodification.
Moral opposition to the procedure stems from the fact that it creates a class of human beings who are "means" rather than "ends" in themselves. In other words, babies are intentionally produced to fulfill someone else's express desires rather than being seen as a unique gift from God. The fact that a clone has only one biological parent would lead to an upset in the social order as it uncouples procreation from the traditional husband/wife relationship.
Finally, it should be obvious that humans have the right not to be created as objects of experimentation.
The South Korean scientists reported that they had no intention of doing such a ghastly thing as reproductive cloning. Dr. Woo Suk Hwang in a recent interview remarked, "Our goal has never been to create cloned human babies, but to find the causes of incurable diseases and to offer a new window for cures." The form of cloning that these men did is known as therapeutic cloning although the name is rather misleading as you will see. By experimenting with 242 human eggs they produced thirty human embryos (i.e. an early stage of a human being) and allowed them to grow and divide for a few days. The embryos were then killed to obtain cells inside of them known as stem cells.
Stem Cell Research
Stem cells are cells that are able to replicate themselves and to transform themselves into the various other cells of the body such as skin, muscle, blood, and bone. Some researchers highly value these cells for their potential to replace damaged or diseased tissue. Claims are often made that such cells could be used to "cure" juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, and spinal cord injuries. It is fair to note that such claims are merely speculative at this time. Most observers report that such cures, if forthcoming, are unlikely in our lifetime. Most importantly, obtaining these stem cells from human embryos (i.e. embryonic stem cells) leads to their immediate death — hardly therapeutic if you're the unfortunate embryo. There are, however, alternative sources of stem cells, as we shall soon discuss.
The topic of embryonic stem cells was placed in the national spotlight on August 9, 2001, when President Bush announced the government's policy on federal funding of stem cell research. While we applaud the President's admission that each embryo is "unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being," his final decision is somewhat problematic for many of us in the evangelical community although we can see its motivation on pragmatic grounds.
The President recommended federal funding be allowed for research on stem cells already in existence that were derived from the destruction of "left over" embryos created at fertility clinics. He said that for these embryos the "life and death decision has already been made." Fortunately, he went on to ban funding any future research on stem cells from embryos yet to be produced in order to "encourage respect for life in American and throughout the world."
A Christian Response
Surely we as Christians are supportive of efforts to relieve suffering and disease in the world. Are there any similar research projects on stem cells we can be supportive of that don't result in the destruction of early human life? The answer is a qualified "yes." Stem cells can also be derived from such sources as blood, muscle, fat, nervous tissue, placentas, and umbilical cords. These stem cells are called adult stem cells and can be obtained from children and adults without causing significant harm to the individuals.
Although initially there was concern that these stem cells would not be able to produce a wide variety of cell types, subsequent research has laid these concerns to rest. Dr. David Prentice, a stem cell researcher at Indiana State University, writes that adult stem cells, "have demonstrated a surprising ability for transformation into other tissues and cells types and for repair of damaged tissues." Currently, the federal government is providing significant funding for such adult stem cell research, and we as Christians should commend these efforts.
Of course, we should not give our uncritical acceptance to any of this research. Currently, private corporations are conducting a large portion of it. The resulting commodification and commercialization of human tissues could lead to expensive therapies that are only available to those with significant financial means. One has also to question how much of our government's financial resources should be diverted to these speculative efforts when many in our country are without basic health care needs.
Some also rightly question how much of this effort is driven by a desire for personal immortality this side of heaven and thus attempting to disrupt the normal God-ordained trajectory of life. Others question if we will one day transgress a genetic boundary in which we will no longer be truly human but instead "posthuman." Now is surely the time for Christians to engage in the public debate on these matters. This will necessarily require efforts beforehand to educate ourselves on these complex but critical issues.
A Call to Action
In summary, we must join with other thoughtful citizens in calling on Congress for a universal ban of both reproductive and therapeutic cloning. Moreover, we must voice our firm opposition to government funding of embryonic stem cell research while offering qualified support for work with adult stem cells. We must be supportive of morally legitimate efforts to relieve human disease and suffering remembering that Jesus Himself went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness (Matthew 9:35, NIV). At the same time, we must speak out against research efforts that result in the destruction of our youngest human beings (embryos) who like us are imagers of God.
Remember what Dr. Seuss says in Horton Hears a Who!: "A person's a person, no matter how small!"
Don W. Buckley, MD and his wife, Janice, are family physicians in Pensacola, Florida. Don is a founding Fellow of the Research Institute of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a recent member of the SBC Executive Committee.