Embryo Cloning and the Treatment of Disease
Cloning has certainly been in the news. In March of this year an Italian doctor by the name of Professor Severino Antinori and his American colleague Professor Zavos, announced their plans to clone human beings. Professor Antinori has been quoted as saying that his research programme could begin this year.
Announcements like this fill most of us with a mixture of disbelief and fear. Could they really do it? What would be the consequences of such a venture? What if this technology fell into the wrong hands? Some of us get visions of such things as armies composed of hundreds of copies of the ideal soldier. We might also wonder how all this ties in with the UK government's positive attitude towards cloning research. Professor Antinori actually praised what he called 'Tony Blair's intelligent decision to allow research into therapeutic cloning'. This leads us on to the vexed question of the possible benefits cloning could have for people with serious illnesses. How do we respond to all this as Christians? Should we totally reject cloning or should we support it in certain circumstances?
To try to answer these questions we need to be clear about what cloning actually is. Even if we understand the basic principle, the different ways the word is being used at the moment can still confuse us.
What is Cloning?
Cloning is basically the asexual production of an organism. When it comes to human cloning there are two types, which are causing controversy at present. The first is reproductive cloning. That is cloning which is designed to produce an embryo that will grow into a separate individual. This is what Prof. Antinori wants to do. It is also the process that was used to clone Dolly the sheep back in July 1996, the first cloned mammal in the world. Dolly was cloned by using DNA from the nucleus of a mammary gland cell, which had been taken from an adult sheep. This DNA was then transferred into an unfertilized egg. This egg had already had its own nucleus removed. The embryo that was brought into being by this process was then inserted into the womb of another sheep, where it grew into Dolly. That is basically what the cloning process involves. This is similar to the process which Professor Antinori wants to use in humans.
Instead of using DNA from a sheep cell he would obviously use a human cell, and he would transfer it into a human egg from which the original nucleus had been removed. He would then transfer the newly-created embryo into a woman's womb, where it would develop into a baby. At least that is the theory of human reproductive cloning. We might ask, why does he want to do that?
Professor Antinori has stated that his intention is to help infertile couples have children. So in situations where the male partner was unable to father children, a clone could be produced by using one of his female partner's eggs and DNA from another cell, which could be from a third party donor or from one of the partners. That is one of the uses of reproductive cloning. There would of course be the potential for this process to be abused by people who simply wanted to make copies of themselves or others.
The second type of cloning is therapeutic cloning. This is the type which the House of Lords approved earlier this year. It is called therapeutic cloning because the purpose of it is to produce cells which, it is hoped, will be used to treat various diseases. The basic process for producing a cloned embryo is similar to the one used in reproductive cloning. The only major difference is that in therapeutic cloning, the cloned embryo would not be implanted into a womb. Instead it would be kept in the laboratory and used to produce cells to treat disease.
How Could Therapeutic Cloning Benefit People with Diseases?
The plan is that it would be used to treat people who have diseases in which their cells have been damaged. Present treatments for these diseases have several difficulties. Take kidney disease, for example. If a person's kidney cells are being damaged he or she will eventually develop renal failure. This could be treated by renal dialysis. This helps many people but it is not an ideal solution. A better treatment would be transplantation.
However not only does that involve a major operation but it also presents the difficulty of finding a suitable kidney donor. It is not the case that the kidney of simply any healthy person will do. The donor kidney needs to be of the same tissue type as the person who is receiving it. If it is not, then the person's body will react against this foreign kidney and become very ill. To avoid this happening, people who undergo transplants often have to take powerful drugs, which can have serious side effects. These are some of the difficulties with trying to replace damaged tissue by means of transplantation. The other problem is that some organs such as the brain cannot be transplanted.
The ideal solution would seem to be finding cells which would perfectly match those which have been damaged, and that is what cloning offers.
How Would Replacement Cells Be Produced?
The plan centres on using what are called stem cells. Stem cells are like little factories for producing other cells. In the blood system for instance, several million blood cells die every hour and so there are blood stem cells, living in the bone marrow, that produce cells to replace the blood cells which die.
Early embryos also have stem cells, called embryonic stem cells. The advantage of these stem cells is that they can potentially produce any tissue of the body if they are removed and grown under the right laboratory conditions. If the stem cells belonged to an embryo which had been cloned using DNA from one of the patient's own cells (in the way outlined above), then the cells they produced should be of exactly the same cell type as the patient. These cells could then be used to repair damaged tissue, and since they would have the same tissue type as the patient, there should be no problems with rejection. They could also be used to repair organs like the brain which cannot be transplanted. That is the theory. However a vast amount of research would still be needed in order to make this kind of treatment possible.
What is Wrong with Cloning?
We may consider reproductive cloning first. Leaving aside the obvious abuses for the moment, what could be wrong with helping an infertile couple to have a child by cloning? At present there is a very big technical problem with reproductive cloning. Current research suggests that at best cloning would only succeed in around one attempt in every hundred. A large number of stillbirths, miscarriages and deformed children would be produced. A cloning expert, who works at the Roslin Institute where Dolly the sheep was cloned, has stated that while cloning with animals remained a hit-and-miss affair, to press ahead with humans would be 'criminally irresponsible'.
However, what if the technology improves and cloning becomes safer? Would we still be opposed to reproductive cloning as a matter of principle? Some people have argued that reproductive cloning is simply imitating something that already happens in nature. Human clones do occur naturally. In fact we all probably know at least one. That is because identical twins are clones. Identical twins account for three to four out of every thousand births. Twins are formed naturally by cloning and share the same genetic makeup. So some people are asking, what can be wrong with doing artificially what happens naturally?
For a start, it is not always right to do something just because it is natural. Painful childbirth is natural but we would not see anything wrong with alleviating the pain. On the other hand surgical operations are unnatural, and yet we would agree that they should be used appropriately to treat disease. Therefore cloning cannot be accepted just because it occurs naturally.
There is also a major difference between identical twins and artificially produced clones. In the case of identical twins, each twin still has a genetic link to both its parents. If artificial cloning were to be successful, the child that is born would only be genetically related to the person who donated the cell from which he or she was cloned.
In my opinion, to help to bring about such a situation is to act contrary to our Creator's intention. God has given the principle of a husband and wife 'becoming one flesh' as the way in which the human race is to be propagated, and every child is to be the unique expression of that relationship between two individuals. A child's genetic structure embodies the unique combination of their father and mother. In other words every child is a bit of their mother and a bit of their father. This principle would be violated in reproductive cloning and it is therefore contrary to our Creator's intention and something which we should be opposed to. Having said that, if we are to believe the experts, it seems likely that `successful' reproductive cloning is at least a little way off.
However, we must now turn our attention to therapeutic cloning since it is something which our government has already given its approval to. Is this something we can approve of? After all, it seems that many people with serious diseases stand to benefit from this research. What then could be the grounds for opposing this scientific advance?
The first objection I want to suggest is based upon the status of the human embryo.
Dr Phil Jones, a medical researcher in Oxford, has said: 'To develop embryo-derived stem cell techniques will require the use of hundreds or thousands of human embryos. The embryos will be grown in dishes before dismantling them into individual cells. Although some of the embryo's cells live on, the embryo itself is destroyed in the procedure. A key issue in deciding our view on the use of human embryos is whether we view the embryo as merely a thing, a potential person or an actual person.'1
That is the issue. When is a person a person? What is the status of a less-than-fourteen-day-old embryo?
Some people argue that the embryo is not a person because it does not have any of the abilities of a person; it cannot relate to other people, it cannot feel or think. Therefore it is not a person. It may be classed as a potential person, but since it is not actually a person, it is permissible to experiment on such embryos and even to create them for experimentation, as long as we are aiming at long-term benefit for other human beings. So it is argued.
But is this really a good argument? Is there any biblical evidence that will help us here? In order to try and answer this I want to begin by outlining some basic principles and then exploring how they apply to the embryo. In doing so I will try to answer some of the other arguments, which proponents of embryo research have used.
The Image of God
The Bible does not define our humanity in terms of our abilities. Rather our humanity is distinct by virtue of the fact that we are made in the image of God. This is what sets man apart from animals in God's creation (Gen. 1:26-27). There has been much debate as to what exactly it means that man was created in God's image. We may not go into all the different possibilities which have been proposed but there are two basic points which I want to draw out which have particular relevance to this debate. The first focuses on dependence. The fact that human beings are image-bearers of God means that they are dependent upon God. Human beings are not self-explanatory. They derive their meaning from God, in whose image they are made. The essence of our humanity does not depend on what we do; rather it is derived from the God in whose image we are made.
So dependence is at the very heart of our humanity, and this feature is also true of embryos. The second important point arising from the fact that human beings are made in God's image is that they have 'dignity'. In Genesis 9:6, the image of God is the reason given for the very high value that is placed upon human life. Human life has an incalculable value. It is not possible to calculate the value of a human life in material terms. It is obviously then a very serious thing to experiment on and to dispose of human beings.
But some people would still argue that although this applies to human beings in general it does not apply to the early embryo. One of the claims that they make is that the early embryos are not human beings because they have a very high mortality rate. It is estimated that between forty and seventy per cent do not reach maturity. In other words over half the eggs which have been fertilised do not survive to be born.
However, Peter Saunders, the General Secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship, makes the point in an article on this issue that survival rates should not be used as an indicator of the value of human life.2Are the earthquake victims and the AIDS sufferers in the world of less importance simply because they have a high mortality? It might give us some problems in our minds if we start to think about what the spiritual status is of all those embryos that are naturally aborted, but it should not cause us to devalue them in any way. It should also be said that the figure of forty to seventy per cent mortality may be an overestimate, as no one knows for sure how many early embryos die.
Another point is that we have evidence in the Bible of God's dealings with the unborn child. For example in Psalm 139:13-16 we discover that God was involved with the Psalmist in his mother's womb, even when his substance was 'yet unformed'. So then it seems that God has a relationship even to embryos. They are made in his image.
We may however want to ask the question, when do embryos actually begin to bear the image of God?
Biology teaches us that human development is a continuous process. It begins at fertilization when a male sperm fuses with a female egg to form a zygote, and essentially the only differences between that zygote and a full-term baby are the factors of nutrition and time. It is at fertilization that we receive our unique genetic identity, and I would argue that it is from that moment that a person exists.
Although we may not have an explicit statement in Scripture to support this, I think that the conception of our Lord Jesus Christ in Mary's womb gives us good grounds for taking this view. The angel answered Mary by saying, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the highest will overshadow you; therefore also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.' This must have happened at conception. This is the moment when the Second Person of the Trinity began to be a man, and I would argue that that is where every human being begins. The early embryo is not just a potential person, but it is a person with potential.
Following on from this, we should recognize that Christians are to care for those who are weak and vulnerable. We serve a God who cares for the weak and defenceless. We have a duty to care even for those who appear very different to us. So surely this should apply to our attitude to the early embryo.
Perhaps not everyone will be convinced by these arguments, but surely, where there is any doubt about whether the embryo is a person or not, we should err on the side of caution. We should play safe. The same is true in other areas of medical practice. We do not withdraw life-sustaining treatment just when we think a person might have died. Where there is any significant degree of uncertainty we play safe, and the same should be true of our approach to the early embryo. Even though everyone does not agree on the status of the early embryo, that does not give them licence to treat embryos simply as commodities which are at their disposal.
However that is what is happening in our country at the present time.
We move on from considering the status of the early embryo. There are two other arguments which could be presented against the practice of therapeutic cloning. The first of these has been called the slippery slope argument. The point here is that therapeutic cloning will inevitably lead to reproductive cloning. At present the law does not allow cloned embryos to be kept beyond fourteen days. That is an arbitrary limit and it would be naive to think that it would never be challenged. Then, theoretically, all that is needed for reproductive cloning to take place is for those embryos to be implanted in the womb. That is why Professor Antinori was praising Tony Blair for his 'intelligent decision to allow research into therapeutic cloning'. He knows that it will ultimately aid his efforts.
The final argument is a pragmatic argument, which is based on very recent scientific research. As we have already noted, it is not just embryos that have stem cells. We all have stem cells in our bodies which are manufacturing cells all the time. Up until very recently it was thought that adult stem cells could only produce one form of cell; blood stem cells only produced blood cells, kidney stem cells only produced kidney cells and so on. This meant that adult stem cells were not considered to be a source of cells to repair damaged organs. (There would be no point in using heart muscle cells produced by the stem cells of a patient with heart disease to repair the damaged heart muscle, as the cells produced would also be diseased.)
However it has been shown recently that adult stem cells have the potential to form cells of other tissues. (Previously it was thought that only embryonic stem cells had that potential.) This recent research has given hope that adult stem cells may be used to treat disease.
There have been pointers to this in various experiments. In October last year, this method was used to treat a patient who had suffered a heart attack. Muscle stem cells were removed from the patient's leg muscle. These stem cells were cultured in a laboratory and then injected back into the heart of the same patient, where they repaired the damage that had been done.
It must be stressed that, as with embryonic stem-cell research, research on adult stem cells is at a very early stage. It may not be possible to repair all body tissues by this means. However, given the hopeful signs in this field, it would seem that further research is warranted, especially as this avoids the ethical dilemmas associated with using embryonic stem cells. The sad thing is that, because the British government has approved therapeutic cloning of human embryos, financial resources will inevitably be directed away from research into the use of adult stem cells.
This is the situation that we are in at the moment. It seems that, in an attempt to be at the forefront of a particular area of research, our government has not given due weight to the serious ethical problems which are presented by therapeutic cloning. It is ironic that around the time that the House of Lords voted to allow therapeutic cloning, there was a great public outcry over the removal of organs from dead patients, and yet there was comparatively little reaction to these plans to allow experimentation on, and disposal of, living embryos. I think that this is a lesson to us all of the need to think very carefully about ethical issues and of our need to search the Word of God in order to come to a clearer understanding of what our attitude should be. It is so easy to be swayed by the promise of great benefits.
As technology advances it will inevitably continue to throw up new challenges. As Christians we must endeavour to apply the timeless principles of the Word of God to each new situation which arises.