Fr. John's Letter Archives

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Here come the Clones

06-30-2013Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

The horse has now left the gate: scientists have successfully cloned a human embryo for the first time ever. This is very big news but you probably didn't hear about it. Scientists down played it, I assume out of fear of someone putting the brakes on it and the media obediently obliged them. Human cloning has been the holy grail of genetic medicine and it appears it has finally been found (my respects to Monty Python). Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University and Oregon National Primate Research Center report that they have successfully cloned a human embryo up to the blastocyst stage (5-10 days old). The type of human cloning used in this case is Human Somatic Cell nuclear transfer (hSCNT) which created a human embryo asexually. This research has not yet been confirmed by peer-reviewed studies but it seems to be the real thing and not a hoax like the one we saw a few years back with a South Korean researcher.

Cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer is the process that was first used to successfully clone Dolly the sheep in 1996. (It allows the clone to be genetically related to the donor.) Since then the only primates to have been successfully cloned are monkeys but no cloned monkey embryos have ever been able to come to birth after implantation in a monkey womb. The cloning or SCNT process starts with a donor cell from a body tissue, such as a skin cell and is fused with an unfertilized egg from which the DNA has been removed. The egg then reprograms the donor cell to an embryonic state. A one-celled embryo is a zygote and if it successfully divides into more cells it reaches the blastocyst stage and after 10 days it must be implanted in a womb in order to further develop and after 3 months of gestation in a womb it becomes a fetus. Once a zygote is formed it is a human being in the earliest stages of development.

At this point many scientists claim that they only want to get the embryo to the blastocyst stage because it is at that stage from which embryonic stem cell lines can be created. This was the stated goal of the research by the researchers in Oregon. At this point implantation of a cloned human embryo has not happened and probably is a long way off. But it will happen most likely at some point. And this is why we need laws banning human cloning. It is now here.

This development, while a milestone in research also unleashes a new episode of the culture wars. You remember how fierce was the debate over Embryonic Stem Cells, well this new research will reignite the debate. The same principles apply and even more: using and destroying embryos to achieve a therapeutic end whether created asexually or sexually is unethical and immoral. Why? Because once created an embryo is a human being in the earliest stages of development and it is always wrong to destroy one human being for the benefit of another. This is an affront to human dignity. Additionally we have no idea what will happen if we actually bring one of these cloned embryos to birth. Right now scientists are saying they'll only clone humans to get human embryonic stem cell lines, or gestate the embryos long enough to harvest body parts which then can be given to a sick sibling and afterwards abort the fetus (this is known as a savior sibling). Cloning without bringing the embryo to birth is termed "therapeutic human cloning". Still it is cloning nonetheless. But at some point they will want to bring a cloned embryo to birth. And then what happens? Will we be bringing Frankenstein to life?

As an aside the use of non-embryonic stem cells (adult stem cell, umbilical cord stem cells, etc) are being applied more and more in clinical treatment. For instance adult stem cells have been used to repair damaged heart tissue and to successfully build a windpipe in a patient allowing the patient to breath on her own. More recent a young boy with cerebral palsy who suffered cardiac arrest and was in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) was treated with umbilical cord blood containing stem cells has recovered and is able to see, speak and sit up! So ethical and non-controversial scientific research is winning the day in the clinical treatment world. But that won't stop many from insisting, actually demanding that we move forward with human cloning. I can already hear the accusations of how we are impeding progress and don't care about sick people, how we are imposing our beliefs on science etc. Remember science can tell us what we can do but eth- ics tells us what we ought to do. In any civilized society ethics rule the day. But we live in an era of politicized science so if you oppose human cloning get ready to be called a cold-hearted Neanderthal. As this debate starts to heat up pay attention to how stories are reported. Many news outlets use the wrong scientific terms either out of laziness or obfuscation or disingenuousness. One paper reported that the scientists in Oregon didn't actually clone an embryo but that they cloned a blastocyst. Well a blastocyst is an embryo at an early stage of development. Also some reports claim there that SCNT is different than cloning, actually somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is one type of cloning. Amazingly one report claimed that this research did away with the problem of having to destroy a human embryo to create embryonic stem cell lines. Really? Just because cloning creates the embryo artificially it is still an embryo.

I'm sure we're in for lots of confusing reports, political and scientific gibberish that will only make the debate more acrimonious. Remember it's ethics we need to focus on and we need to make sure that the ethical debate is not high jacked by people with political and financial agendas. The debate is whether or not human beings at all stages of development and decline are afforded protection and care in keeping with human dignity. That is the real debate. And it is a debate we need to have.

Love, Fr. John B.