As arguments raged over Obama’s executive order to provide federal funding for embryonic stem cell research a few weeks ago, the administration’s pro-life defenders emphasized that this was only a small incremental step beyond the Bush administration policy and that the Obama administration would be very careful in examining the ethical issues and most especially would not allow the production of cloned embryos.
The problem is that, as shown by an extended debate between Doug Kmiec and Robert P. George on the US News “God & Country” blog, current policy far from banning cloning, will encourage it. (HT: Mary Meets Dolly, one of the best resources for serious Catholics on genetics related ethical and scientific issues.)
Obama’s statement was:
And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.
The problem with the statement and the policy behind it is “for human reproduction”. There is a major effort on to differentiate between “reproductive cloning” and “somatic cell nuclear transfer” (the scientific term for creating a cloned embryo) for research purposes. As a senator, Obama co-sponsored a bill sponsored by Senators Feinstein, Hatch, Harkin, and Specter which purported to be a “ban on cloning”. What it in fact consisted of was a ban on implanting a cloned embryo into a surrogate mother in order to allow it to normally develop and be born.
People are rightly put off by the idea of “creating clones” as an offense against human nature and dignity. Yet there are many in the biotech industry who have business plans hungry for massive supplies of embryos to be used (and eventually destroyed) in research. While all the talk about ESCR and other forms of embryo destructive research has been around “spare” embryos in IVF clinics, the fact of the matter is that there is a limited supply of ready-made embryos available. If biotech companies were to come up with commercially scalable processes that involved destroying embryos, the would run out very quickly. So while embryo destructive research with “spare” embryos is itself a huge moral problem in regards to human life and dignity, it’s something which would quickly run itself out.
The favored solution to this problem is cloning, which would have the added benefit (from a biotech point of view) of being able to produce “spare parts” derived from cloned embryos that exactly matched the DNA of the patient being treated. This does, currently, still create a problem: Cloning requires the use of a human egg cell, which can normally only be acquired from a woman via the use of heavy ovulation hormone treatments. If cloning comes into use on an industrial scale, not only would we have the morally abhorrent situation of thousands or even millions of human lives being created specifically for the purpose of destroying them, but we would doubtless find biotech companies paying women in the third world to undergo frequent “egg donations” with possibly serious long term health effects. (Most ghoulishly of all, some have suggested harvesting the eggs from female aborted children to be used to feed a cloning industry.)
As of now, people still have a natural revulsion towards the idea of creating human life for utilitarian purposes. It would be a shame if that natural reaction is channeled into passing legislation making it illegal to let clones live, yet allowing their mass creation to be used in research and then destroyed.