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BY John Burger
WORCESTER, Mass. — Is it a human life or not?
That is one of the basic questions at the heart of the recent announcement here that a human being has been cloned for the first time.
Reaction to the announcement was swift and strong, with the Vatican, the president of the United States, legislators, pro-life scientists and ethicists all condemning the action by the biotechnology firm Advanced Cell Technology.
They agreed that if Advanced Cell Technology really has managed to create living human clones, a grave offense against human life and dignity has been committed.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington called the news “deeply disturbing.”
“The arrogance that leads someone to believe he can take on the role of God and reduce humans to mere ‘spare parts’ is an arrogance which has dangerous implications we cannot fully anticipate.”
But some members of the ethics advisory board that Advanced Cell commissioned don't believe the clone is human. Even if it is, they don't believe it is deserving of the same kind of protection a “fully human” person has.
Advanced Cell's scientists described the feat in Scientific American's Nov. 24 issue. In an accompanying article, Ronald M. Green, who headed the ethics board, said that most of its members did not agree “the organism produced … is the equivalent of any ordinary human embryo and merits the same degree of respect and protection.”
“Unlike an embryo, a cloned organism is not the result of fertilization of an egg by a sperm,” said Green, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College. “It is a new type of biological entity never before seen in nature.” He added that although the clone possesses some potential for developing into a full human being, this capacity is “very limited.”
Green pointed out that embryos do not normally attach to the wall of the uterus and begin development until after the blastocyst stage, at about four days. “It has no organs, it cannot possibly think or feel, and it has none of the attributes thought of as human.”
Pro-life medical experts dismiss such arguments as deliberately misleading.
“It's a new, dividing member of the human natural kind. If it is placed in the womb, it has the potential to grow into a child,” said Franciscan Brother Daniel Sulmasy, a physician who is director of ethics at St. Vincent's Hospital and Medical Center in Manhattan and New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. “This name-calling disguises what's being done.”
As for the argument that a clone is not human because it has not yet reached a specific stage of development, Dr. Sulmasy said, “Every member of the natural human kind is deserving of respect … [that's] like saying you don't deserve it unless you have the right skin color or the right color eyes.”
Advanced Cell tried three techniques in its cloning experiments: a chemical stimulus to get the eggs to begin dividing on their own; replacing the egg's nucleus with adult skin cells, and the use of “cumulus” cells that encase the egg. None of the three involved the act of fertilization, the means by which human life is created naturally.
Carol Tauer, an ethicist with the Minnesota Center for Health Care Ethics, which is affiliated with the College of St. Catherine and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, was a member of Advanced Cell's ethics advisory board. She said that she sides with theologians such as Karl Rahner and Bernard Haring in doubting that an early stage embryo is fully human.
Tauer, who served on panels advising the Clinton administration on human embryo research and embryonic stem-cell research, also suggested that because Advanced Cell's technique did not involve fertilization, the entities produced weren't human life. “It's just an egg that started dividing. … It doesn't have the potential to become a fetus, as far as we know.”
Jesuit Father Kevin FitzGerald, a molecular biologist who holds the Lauler Chair in Catholic Health Care Ethics at Georgetown University, attacked this kind of thinking on both legal and scientific grounds. “It's interesting that we have a legal tradition in this country that you're innocent until proven guilty, but here you're not human until you can prove you are.”
Cloned human embryos, if implanted, would have the potential to grow into fully developed human beings, Father FitzGerald added. In human beings, that has not yet happened. “But [researchers] have shown that you can take a clone, implant it into the womb of an animal, and it will develop into an adult mammal,” he said. “No egg you're ever going to put into a womb will grow into a mammal by itself. But you can manipulate it and get an individual, a twin, in fact.”
The Vatican on Nov. 26 rejected claims that the human cloning research produced simple cells and not human individuals. It is “beyond doubt, as indicated by the researchers themselves, that here we find ourselves before human embryos and not cells,” said a statement released by the Vatican Press Office.
The statement also said determination of when human life begins cannot be fixed by convention to a certain stage of embryonic development but instead was found “in the first instant of existence of the embryo itself.”
Though in this case recognizing human life was more difficult because researchers created the embryo in an “inhuman” way — without uniting sperm and egg — the resultant being had the same dignity as any other human life, the Vatican said.
Even Advanced Cell's scientists, including president and Chief Executive Officer Michael West, have called the resulting products of their experiments “human embryos.” In their Scientific American article, the researchers describe what they saw under the microscope as “tiny dots” which “held such immense promise.”
“Insignificant as they appeared, the specks were precious because they were, to our knowledge, the first human embryos produced using the technique of … cloning.”
Legionary Father Gonzalo Miranda, bioethics professor at the world's first Catholic school of bioethics at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome, said Advanced Cell Technology is trying to exploit both sides of the “human life” debate to its own advantage.
“To get public attention they announce that they have produced ‘the first cloned human being,’” Father Miranda said, “And to appease criticism they also say that ‘it is not a human embryo.’”
He added that the viewpoints of Advanced Cell Technology's ethics committee, whose members were selected by the company itself, have little credibility. “The reasons they give to say that these are not human embryos have already been refuted years ago by numerous embryologists and bioethicists. … They remind me of Father Richard John Neuhaus' denunciation that bioethics professionals have become, in large part, the ‘Permission Office.’”
President Bush, responding Nov. 29 to the news from Advanced Cell, called cloning “morally wrong” and said, “We should not as a society grow life to destroy it.”
The House of Representatives voted July 31 to ban human cloning both for reproduction and research. The legislation would carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison and fines of $1 million for anyone who generates cloned human embryos.
The Senate might not take up the legislation until spring. In the meantime, Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., have introduced an amendment to temporarily ban all human cloning for six months.
“This is an important issue, an issue that commands our attention in part because of the vast historical consequence, and also because it is an issue that focuses our attention on the meaning of life — and whether or not we will, as a society, allow life to be created and destroyed at our whim,” Brownback said.
House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, called the first human embryo cloning a “four-alarm wake-up call” to the Senate to act on the House bill. “Let's be clear,” Armey said. “We are in a race to prevent amoral, scientifically suspect tinkering with the miracle and sanctity of life.”
(With files from CNS and RNS)