Human cloning is real.

Yesterday, the prominent scientific journal Cell published a paper by scientists at Oregon Health & Science University announcing that they had successfully derived stem cell lines from cloned human embryos. Some context is necessary, however, to start to grasp the implications of what has taken place.

First of all, a brief primer to the science. Cloning is more commonly referred to in scientific circles as “somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT),” where scientists take the DNA from an adult (somatic) cell and transfer it into an unfertilized egg, which has had its own DNA removed. Normally to begin developing into an embryo, a fetus, and ultimately an adult human being, the egg has to be fertilized by a sperm to which kick off the series of coordinated steps that constitute human development.

Instead of having the genetic material from two parents combine into a unique new life, however, cloning takes the full genetic information from an adult and places it into the emptied egg. These researchers immersed the egg in a caffeine solution and delivered regular electrical shocks, among other techniques, forcing it to enter development, dividing and growing until it reached “blastocyst” stage, where a protective outer layer called the trophoblast surrounds the mass of inner cells (ICM) that will constitute the myriad parts of a human body, and being.

At this point, as is the necessary procedure to obtain embryonic stem cells, they dissolved that protective outer layer to obtain the inner cells rich in total potential, and grew them into an “immortal” line of stem cells. To prove their success, some of those cells were programmed into muscle cells and grown into tumors under the skin of immune-suppressed mice. The muscle cells were made to contract, and filmed doing so.

The controversies and debates about cloning specifically are legion, and will be given new intensity with this announcement, but some points can be made at the outset. For those who believe that human life is worthy of protection from its inception, the creation of a human life for the express purpose of destroying it, and manipulating what could have been a child into reproducible tissue for manipulation and research is abhorrent.

Cloning compounds these considerations by transforming the nature of human life itself. As sexual beings, every child is the product of a union, possessing a unique inheritance unto themselves (identical twins notwithstanding) that will generate and govern their own story going forward. Cloning, however, gives that child the inheritance of a life already once lived. Many of our reproductive technologies already run perilously close to making the creation of life into manufacture, and cloning would drastically advance that by beginning to recycle the very material of life, to some degree inevitably making a newborn into a do-over. The demand is already there, to recover a lost child, to regenerate a dead genius, to live on forever genetically intact. We should not provide the supply.

These scientists protest that they have no interest in reproductive cloning, though, and indeed claim that a forthcoming paper will prove that their technique cannot be used to bring a child to term even if they wanted to do so. Even here, their justifications are weak. Embryonic stem cells, far from the promises of universal supply kits of personalized medicine promised at the DNC a decade back, have an inherent limit: human embryos are hard to come by. They require women to undergo highly invasive and sometimes risky techniques not to give birth, but to give scientists material to work with. The women used in this study were paid thousands of dollars, raising concerns over the exploitation of the poor, the commodification of the human body, and the commercialization of women’s reproductive powers. Furthermore, the research shows that while these scientists were very efficient, techniques obtaining more than 16 eggs at once produced eggs drastically less capable of being used for cloning.

Moreover, human embryonic stem cell research has fallen off dramatically since the discovery in 2006 of a technique for turning adult cells back into the “pluripotent” state embryos are so desirable for, at much less cost and without the ethical concerns of destroying embryos. Those cells, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), won Shinya Yamanaka a Nobel Prize for his efforts this year, and have revolutionized the stem cell research world. That breakthrough, it must be recognized, took place under a Japanese regulatory regime that made experimenting on human embryos almost impossible.

Taken together, a strong case is made for banning human cloning of any sort, and for keeping scientific research within the bounds of what is morally acceptable. Science wields awesome powers for achieving the ends we set before it, and we should not do it so little credit as to assume that medical progress must be ethically transgressive.

 

For those interested in learning more about the subject, one of the best introductions to and considerations of stem cell science was published last year by The New Atlantis and the Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science (disclosure: I worked on that report while at The New Atlantis), and I would direct those interested in learning more about the broader history of the debates there.

For cloning specifically, the President’s Council on Bioethics released a report in 2002 entitled Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry, which would be a good place to start for a serious thinking through of the issues, even if the scientific techniques have advanced since then.