Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Francis Collins on the moral status of cloned embryos

Grasping the morally obvious (Djimon Hounsou in The Island).
Browsing in a book store, I glanced through The Language of God, a 2006 book by Francis Collins, the world-famous scientist and current head of the National Institutes of Health (appointed by President Obama).

In a section in the back of the book, Collins discusses some key bioethics issues. Collins supports both embryonic stem cell research and human cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer) for research. Interestingly, Collins seems to have much less moral concern about cloning and then killing human embryos than he does about killing human embryos created by fertilization (though he's ultimately okay with both).

He writes:
I would argue that the immediate product of a skin cell and an enucleated egg cell [i.e., a cloned embryo] fall[s] short of the moral status of the union of sperm and egg [i.e., an embryo produced by fertilization]. The former is a creation in the laboratory that does not occur in nature, and is not part of God's plan to create a human individual. The latter is very much God's plan, carried out through the millennia by our own species and many others.
This is really disturbing. Collins is saying that some members of our species -- because of the way they came into being -- are less valuable than others. In particular, he is suggesting that human beings cloned in a laboratory lack the moral status of the rest of us, and may be used and killed for our benefit. This is classic science fiction. The moral error is blatantly obvious.

Here's the key question: Is the result of cloning the same kind of entity as the result of fertilization? Yes. Both processes result in a new human organism at the embryonic stage of development. The only difference is how they came into existence. What they are is the same.

People conceived by in vitro fertilization, though they were created "in the laboratory" in a way that "does not occur in nature," are people nonetheless. Dolly the sheep -- famously created by cloning -- was, in fact, a sheep, no different in nature than any other sheep.

To discriminate as Collins advocates is both absurd and morally abhorrent.