Questions Ban on Human Cloning Research


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by Prof. Michel Revel

Prof. Michel Revel of the Weizmann Institute of Science is Israel's representative to UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee which drafted the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. The Declaration was voted upon by UNESCO's General Conference in early November. The Declaration's final text, in contrast to its original draft, proposes a ban on human cloning research.
"The more knowledge, the more distress" says the Talmud. How true that seems for the field of genetics, when week after week, breakthroughs are in the news. As soon as scientific advances in laboratory animals are announced, the item is instantly used to forecast a revolution in human reproduction: let's make genetically ideal babies, let's clone human copies, let's make headless fetuses for transplantable spare parts.
Biology has become a trendy scarecrow, a convenient target for moralists and politicians who then condemn science and are eager to ban new experimentation.

The Right to Benefit from Scientific advancement

"To benefit from scientific advancement" is a basic human right defined by the UN. Exercising this right implies defining the limits of the permissible, and weighing the moral conditions of action. Ethics committees, increasingly called upon to watch over Science, ought to explain the potential benefits of scientific applications, and create guidelines for their use, rather than trying to have them outlawed upfront.
Fear of eugenics and of illusory social manipulations has led several governments to outlaw applications of cloning to humans. I believe that one should not rush to brand a potentially beneficial process as "contrary to human dignity", as UNESCO added in the revised text of its Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (Article 11) which was adopted at the organization's General Conference, November 12, 1997.
Ethicists who drafted this Declaration meant to ensure that application of any genetic practice to human beings be developed with respect for the rights and dignity of individuals. They also meant to ensure that mankind would not be deprived of benefits that such progress might bring if applied within the bioethical guidelines outlined eloquently in the rest of the Declaration. The ban on human cloning applications, seems to go against these views.
It may be worth remembering that when in vitro fertilization was first successfully performed in 1978, "creating a human being in a test tube" was criticized as undignified and offensive to human love. Since then, assisted reproduction has alleviated distress for thousands of parents. Cloning could be just another form of assisted reproduction. Fertilization by an adult cell nucleus -- the essence of cloning -- may be invaluable for a man and a woman who are both sterile and desire a biological child, or a religious couple that does not accept an extramarital donated sperm or egg that may be considered adulterous. Reproduction by cloning may also hold a solution for couples where one member carries a severe hereditary disease, allowing the other partner to contribute his or her genome to their offspring. This is why some countries, including Israel, consider sufficient to strictly regulate cloning research rather than banning it.

Not an Industrial Process

Cloning will not be an industrial process, to mass produce copies of human subsets, as fantasized by Aldous Huxley. Every human clone will be born of a woman who, by virtue of giving birth, will have legal rights. Every clone will have a mother, and be loved.
There is little fear that the child will be an exact replica of the parent who provided the DNA. Cloned human beings would resemble each other to the same degree as identical twins (who are far from identical), with genetics contributing just over half of the cognitive abilities, which are patterned by education and environment.
Genetic identity is an illusion. Even cloned animals differ in their hair color patterns. The immune system of each human being is different, and so may be brain wiring. The oocyte of the surrogate egg and its mitochondrial DNA exerts a maternal influence on the development and so does the pregnant mother's nutritional behavior.
We are all aware of the importance of sexual propagation in mixing human genes -- there must be no substitute for the diversity of humans, which underlies the unity of the human species.
The key to avoiding the inherent dangers of cloning such as megalomaniac attempts to improve racial human subgroups or produce human beings with useful traits, is to ensure that the technology serves only the needs of the individual and not goals desired by society. It must never be used except for medical therapeutic purposes, respecting the rights, autonomy and dignity of the mother, of the donor and of the child to be born.
The rights and wrongs of cloning, or for that matter, of any genetic manipulation, should be decided on a case-by-case basis. Rigid legislation does not account for an individual's right to benefit from the advancement of Science.

Weighing the Benefits of Cloning

Research on cloning must be allowed to continue within agreed guidelines because, as in all scientific advances, it entails benefits which should not be scrapped outright because of perceived risks.
Cloned embryos could provide tissues for transplants that would be compatible to the recipient, avoiding the present-day hazards of graft procedures. Embryonic cells could be taken from cloned embryos soon after fertilization, hence prior to implantation into the uterus, and cultured in a way to form tissues of pancreatic cells to treat diabetes, or brain nerve cells that could be genetically engineered to treat Parkinson or other neuro-degenerative diseases.
Scientists' rights to produce embryos for such purposes are subject to attitudes towards embryonic life, as well as consideration about whether saving an existing human life justifies ending that of embryos. In Judaism, and also in Islam, the embryo is considered to acquire human characteristics only after 40 days. Scientific guidelines allow embryos to be grown in culture for 14 days.
A consensus on when and under which conditions an embryo is a human being does not exist, and varies with individual religions and philosophies. This issue will undoubtedly come out in the debate on headless embryos, which could provide formed organs, such as hearts, for grafts. Lethal malformations in fetuses have been recognized since antiquity, and moralists have considered fetuses with no identifiable head and chest as non-humans. Whether saving the life of a human individual by willfully producing such fetal abortuses is compatible with human dignity will be debated -- and ought to be -- considering that a woman will have to bear the fetus. At the same time, however, grafts save lives, and the unavailability of organs is becoming a major death factor that will worsen unless scientists successfully culture fully formed organs. Today's organ traffic would appear to many a more dangerous peril than producing one's own cloned embryo for auto-graft.
Ethicists must be aware of human cultural diversities, and weigh the rights of the individual to benefit from scientific advancement against the risks. Upfront banning of potential new technologies is not a dignified human answer.
The metaphysical Jewish concept of Tikun views humans as God's partner in completing and repairing His creation, especially the ills and suffering that plague the world. Amazingly, a 13th century French Rabbi, Menahem Hameiri, predicted our contemporary debates when writing: "Any act that nature permits is not [forbidden] witchcraft, even the making of wonderful creatures without a joining of sexes...practices for medical purposes are not immoral."