“We are the first species to have taken evolution into our own hands,” claimed the late Carl Sagan. His words sounded chillingly prophetic last week when the British government proposed the legalization of “limited” human cloning. Defenders of human dignity had better take quick notice.
The British decision came after a group of medical experts recommended that therapeutic cloning be allowed with human embryos. If approved by Parliament, the legislation would allow the cloning of human embryos for the sole purpose of removing the powerful “stem cells” for purposes of researcha procedure that destroys the embryo.
“Stem cell research opens up a new medical frontier,” said Dr. Liam Donaldson, Britain’s chief medical officer. He is certainly correct, for the isolation of stem cells by American researchers in 1998 has led to hopes for break-through treatments for Parkinson’s Disease and other serious illnesses. But those hopes are tempered by serious ethical concerns.
Stem cells produce the specialized tissues and organs of the entire human body. Their discovery may hold the key to understanding how cells can be therapeutically transformed into custom replacements for tissues or organs damaged by accident or disease.
Scientists want to experiment with stem cells drawn from human embryosknown as “pluripotent stem cells,” because these cells have not yet begun to specialize. Researchers theorize that they may soon be able to direct these cells into a desired specialization, even replacing brain cells damaged by disease. Some hope to create specialized “killer” cells designed to attack cancerous tumors.
Nevertheless, the ethical concerns are ominous, and those who defend the sanctity of human life now face a serious new threat. Controversy over experimentation with human embryos reaches a new level with demands for access to stem cells. At present, pluripotent stem cells are available only from “spare” human embryos produced by in vitro fertilization treatments (IVF). The British government currently allows experimentation with embryos under 14 days old. Once they reach the 14-day threshold, they are destroyed.
Of course, removing the stem cells also destroys the embryo. The U.S. government currently denies federal funding to researchers using human embryos in experimentation, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the president’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) are pressing to drop this regulation.
The current British proposal takes these experiments one frightening step farther. The Brits want to be allowed to clone human embryos for the sole purpose of experimentation. Cloaking their proposal in language about “cell nuclear replacement,” the British scientists want permission to clone human embryos in order to produce stem cells identical to those in a living human patient. They deny any intent to implant a cloned embryo in a woman’s womb. Some scientists doubt that the British researchers will be able to produce viable embryos in the near future.
The “slippery slope” toward a culture of death is clearly evident in the arguments put forth by the British panel of medical experts. Since British law currently allows for the experimentation on living human embryos up to 14 days old, the shift to cloning “does not raise any new ethical issues.” In other words, once the moral repugnance of destroying human embryos is crossed, it really doesn’t matter how the embryos are produced. The British report also proposes that germ cells could be removed from aborted fetuses, though these may not hold as much potential as cells drawn from embryos.
The British and American researchers pressing for legalization and funding of this research share a common argumentthe great potential for the treatment of intractable illnesses outweighs the value of the human embryo. This argument is very persuasive to the public. The Clinton administration is inclined to accept the NIH and NBAC proposals, and Vice President Gore has signaled his intention to allow the research and funding if elected.
The issue may erupt in the presidential election debates. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, a leading proponent of stem cell research, told the New York Times: “If there is a President (George W.) Bush, by executive order he could stop these things.”
If so, America would be heeding the warnings issued by Germans. Given their horrible memories of Nazi medical experiments on humans, the Germans outlaw any removal of genetic material from human embryos. As Evangelical Church spokesman Thomas Krueger reflected, “Our barbaric past is one more reason to oppose it.”
A culture that allows the manufacture, manipulation, and destruction of human embryosplus the abortion of its unborn young and the assisted suicide of its old and illis headed toward the wholesale redefinition of human life and human dignity. This brings us to the frightening prospect of an even more barbaric future.