Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The cloning debate: Is human SCNT ethical?

As we have written about here repeatedly, a bill under consideration in the Minnesota Legislature would prohibit the human cloning process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). Opponents of the bill say that Minnesota researchers might one day (they do not currently) want to do human SCNT to create cloned human embryos (genetically virtually identical to the donor of genetic material) in order to then destroy those embryos for research purposes.

Is SCNT for research ethical? There are a host of serious ethical problems with human SCNT in general, as a group of scientists and bioethicists has pointed out in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. (Suffice it to say that there is good reason for people to react as they do: "Human cloning? Yuck!") But I want to address what is clearly the overriding ethical issue in the debate over SCNT specifically for research: the moral status of the embryo who is used and killed.

Is the embryo a human being -- a living member of the species Homo sapiens? There is no doubt that the answer is yes. The embryo is a distinct, living and whole human organism in the embryonic stage of his or her (sex is determined) development. That's what a "human embryo" is. The development of every human organism, unless interrupted, is a continuous process from zygote to embryo to fetus to newborn to toddler and on toward maturity, requiring only a suitable environment and nutrition.

Given that the embryo is a living member of our species -- a human being -- how ought we treat him or her? My contention is that every human being, at every stage of development and regardless of age, size, ability and location, possesses profound, inherent and equal dignity and ought to be respected and protected, not dismembered for the benefit of others.

Some people do not agree. Sophisticated advocates of this view offer criteria for distinguishing between human beings who deserve basic moral respect (e.g., you and me) and human beings who do not (e.g., the embryo). They say that someone is deserving of respect not by virtue of who or what (i.e., the kind of being) she is, but because she has acquired certain properties (e.g., self-awareness) that are supposedly morally decisive.

The problem is that these proposed criteria (1) are arbitrary and self-serving, (2) inevitably exclude obvious examples of rights-bearing human beings, and (3) come in varying degrees, leaving no basis for equality even among those human beings who do "qualify" for basic rights. Such criteria confuse the functions characteristic of mature and healthy human beings with the basis for fundamental human value and dignity -- dignity that is possessed by humans simply by virtue of being human, not because they have achieved a certain degree of development or acquired a particular ability.

So: Given that the embryo is a valuable human being who ought to be treated accordingly, is SCNT for research ethically permissible? Clearly not. For we are now talking about the creation of new members of the human family specifically for the purpose of killing them and harvesting their useful parts, which could theoretically be used for the benefit of others (namely, their genetic twins). This is morally abhorrent -- it is the treatment of very young human beings as mere raw material to use for our own ends.

I challenge opponents of the cloning ban, especially researchers at the University of Minnesota, to offer some reasonable justification for treating the youngest members of our species in this way. If cloned human embryos are not human beings (in the biological sense), prove the embryology textbooks wrong. If they are human beings but have no moral value and no right not to be deliberately killed, why not? And why is your criteria morally significant? I suspect most advocates of human SCNT for research have done little or no serious thinking about this very serious issue.

One final note, about the therapeutic rationale for human SCNT: If I am correct about the moral status of the human embryo (above), then any scientific or therapeutic benefits of SCNT are beside the point, for they do not justify the killing of innocent human beings. Nazi doctors might have acquired useful knowledge or otherwise benefited from their gruesome experiments on human subjects, but that is not relevant to the morality of their actions. In any case, there doesn't appear to be any real therapeutic justification for human SCNT -- researchers in Minnesota have not even pursued it. Ethical research has turned out to be much more promising and effective.

More about the proposed human cloning ban: