EVER SINCE the days of Adam and Eve, man has been tempted to try to become more like God. This has never been more true than in the 20th century, which has witnessed the unlocking of the secrets of the atom and, in the process, the technology to destroy ourselves and all the earth in the blink of an eye.
Now, at the cusp of a new millennium, Dr. Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, has successfully cloned an adult sheep to produce a genetically identical lamb. This remarkable breakthrough has opened the door to the possibility that human beings, too, can be “created” without benefit of the union of sperm and egg.
Like the scientists who split the atom, Wilmut carried out his research with high hopes that the discovery will benefit humanity. Cloning the most productive milking cows, propagation of endangered species, and producing replacement organs for transplant patients are just a few ways that could happen.
But many people, from ethicists to theologians to plain folks, fear that cloning human beings is the next logical step for the same scientific community that brought us test-tube babies and fetal tissue research. Wilmut himself has been careful to point out that he considers that possibility unethical.
Within days of the report of the sheep cloning, President Clinton imposed a ban on federal funds for human cloning experiments and called for a temporary voluntary moratorium on experiments in the United States.
Vatican officials were also quick to weigh in on the astounding news. Human cloning would violate human dignity, the sacred nature of marriage and the very principle of human equality, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican's leading expert on medical ethcis, said in Feb. 26 statement. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and others stressed that while it may be ethical to clone animals in some cases, cloning humans could never be justified.
“It is a short step from cloning animals to cloning humans,” Cardinal Ratzinger said in a March 5 interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica. “The Church has always called with a loud voice for respect for human life in all its forms and at every moment. But it does so particularly in the face of the rising number of disturbing events …” including the cloning of a sheep and a rhesus monkey.
”Certainly,” the cardinal told the newspaper, “if research can help eliminate hunger or certain diseases, that would be welcome. But nothing more. The sacredness of life is not to be touched.”
And, March 2, Pope John Paul condemned “dangerous experiments” that show a lack of respect for human life or that manipulate God's creation for profit or power.
But already, at least one group has formed demanding the right to clone. In New York, homosexual activists calling themselves the Clone Rights Action Center staged a rally in Greenwich Village March 1 protesting a state bill that would make human cloning a felony. The group's leader, Randolfe Wicker, told a gay electronic magazine that “heterosexuality as a route to reproduction is now historically obsolete.”
Ethicists nearly universally disagree with the small group of activists, saying there is no good reason to pursue experiments in human cloning.
Peter Cataldo, director of research for the Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Education Center in Braintree, Mass., told the Register that Wilmut's research thus far does not appear to violate Church teaching.
”However,” he cautioned, “that point is true only within very restricted circumstances as they now exist. The research becomes morally unacceptable when it begins to actually affect the very nature of various species, and I'm speaking here of animal species.”
When humans enter the equation it becomes more clear, he said, because it raises the issues of human dignity and respect for the sacredness of human life. “Any human cloning would be absolutely morally unacceptable,” he said.
Jesuit Father Kevin FitzGerald, a medical ethicist and a geneticist, stressed that the Hollywood concept of a clone as a duplicate of another person is inaccurate.
”If this was done with humans you would get an identical twin, and identical twins are not exactly the same,” Father FitzGerald said. “They can be very different personality-wise, even if they look exactly the same.” The cloned child would have his or her own soul in the same way identical twins (natural clones) have individual souls, he said.
Father FitzGerald, a researcher of cancer genetics at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., and a research associate in medical ethics in Loyola's Department of Medical Humanities, is excited about Wilmut's success because of its possible implications for cancer research.
He explained that as early embryonic cells develop into more specialized cells— be they kidney cells, lung cells, whatever— they turn off all of their genes except for the ones needed for their specific function. Wilmut has figured out how to reactivate those genes. This causes the cell—in this case a mammary cell from the adult sheep- to begin acting like an embryonic cell again.
Wilmut's discovery may help cancer researchers understand how cancer cells lose their identity as kidney or lung cells and begin “dividing like crazy,” Father FitzGerald said. “(The cloning research) would be a great model to study how genes which are supposed to be turned off inappropriately get turned back on again,” he said.
That said, Father FitzGerald categorically rejects the cloning of humans “from any perspective—theologically, ethically or even scientifically.”
In a Feb. 24 New York Times story on the ethics of cloning, John Robertson, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the procedure would be understandable in a situation, for example, where a couple wanted to replace a dying child. But Father FitzGerald expressed dismay at the logic, saying it wouldn't do justice to the child who dies or to his clone.
”Scientifically, you can say right away you're not going to replace the child; you get a delayed identical twin,” he said. “It is unfair, in a sense, to the next child to put that burden on them and say you have been created to replace someone.”
Father FitzGerald also rejects the notion of creating clones who could serve as organ or tissue donors. “We don't force anyone now to donate organs or tissue, so why create human beings to donate organs or tissue?” he said. “I mean, these are human beings.”
He conceded, however, that inevitably someone will attempt to clone humans. “We've had gun powder around for a thousand years and we still haven't figured out how to regulate that properly,” he said. “So will this be attempted by somebody in the near or far distant future? Probably. And if it happens, my hope is whoever happens to be born of this technique will still be allowed to live a fulfilling life and not be discriminated against or considered to be some kind of mutant or other species. It will be a human person with his or her own individual relationship with God and unique human spirit.”
Cataldo of the Pope John Center said the moral objections to cloning are the same as those for in-vitro fertilization. “It's the same affront to human dignity and the right of the individual to be borne of the fruit of the conjugal act between a husband and wife,” he said.
With cloning, he added, there is also an added genetic dimension. “So far as I understand it, cloning is not simply a matter of duplication and replication, it's also an issue of genetic manipulation and genetic engineering,” he said. “This process gives science a much more efficient method and process of altering the genetic code of an individual who is the result of cloning. So, in the process of cloning, there is the opportunity to create alterations in the one being cloned, either to take out defects or various other changes, and possibly even make enhancements.”
In a Feb. 24 press release from the Roslin Institute announcing the cloning of the sheep, Wilmut said that “genetic modification of the donor cells in culture before they are used in nuclear transfer will also allow us to introduce very precise changes in their DNA.”
These changes, he said, open up the possibilities for new products to treat cancer and other ailments. Wilmut said he thought it unlikely that the new technology would be used to produce genetically modified animals in the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, Catholic ethicists and Church leaders will continue to keep a close eye on the research, bracing for another battle over human dignity while trying not to discourage advances that can benefit mankind.
”Whenever an issue like this comes up, it needs to be reemphasized that the Catholic Church is not against technological and scientific advances in the area of genetics,” said Cataldo. “It encourages that type of research that truly serves the human person and is at the service of man.”
Dennis Poust is based in Austin, Texas.