Sunday, 1 September 2013

A new slippery slope towards a frightening future

First there was Dolly the sheep, born on 5 July 1996. For days we saw a very normal-looking ewe lamb from all angles. Some years later, her six lambs also received media attention. Dolly died on 14 February 2003, victim of an incurable viral infection known as sheep pulmonary adenomatosis (SPA).

Dolly was not the first animal to be cloned. Many others followed. In the beginning scientists, politicians and farmers were adamant that we would not be eating them. “They are only ever going to be used for breeding purposes”, they claimed. Oh really? In that case, why did the US Food and Drug Administration declare, in 2008, that meat and milk from cloned animals are safe for human consumption? If they were not going to be eaten, was there a need to announce that they are safe? In Britain the Foods Standards Agency admitted that a great deal depends on the honesty and openness of the farmers, recognising that a cloned and a non-cloned bullock look very similar. The same can be said for the milk from a cloned and non-cloned cow. It is easy for cloned animal products to enter the food chain.

 But what is a clone? Basically, a clone is an identical twin, except that we do not normally use the term ‘clone’ when referring to children. Most frequently, when scientists talk of a clone, it means that they have, in one way or another, manipulated genetic material in order to produce two or more identical organisms which then go on to behave in an identical fashion to the parent. We make clones ourselves when we take a cutting from a plant.

One person remarked, “Just because we can does not mean we should.” If we can produce a herd of genetically identical cattle in the hope of boosting milk and meat production or avoiding some disability or disease, it does not mean that the process is ethical. The problem is that we hear of the successes but not of the failures. We rarely hear that more than 95 per cent of efforts to clone an animal fail and that those which are successful have a higher than average rate of birth defects, disabilities, illness and early death. Neither do scientists proclaim from the rooftops that “a high rate of late-term pregnancy loss, pregnancy complications, painful labour, and surgical intervention is unique to clone pregnancies.”

Important issues arise when we talk of cloning animals because, step by step, we are coming closer to what will inevitably happen sooner or later, the cloning of human beings – and that is where the ethical concerns simply start pouring in. Cartoonists have enjoyed themselves drawing pictures of production line babies emerging on a conveyor belt in some baby factory. It is an exaggeration, but it makes the point.

First and foremost, why clone people? Identical twins, triplets or quads are one thing – and they are beautiful – but does a family really want a replica of Auntie Daisy so that they can remember her after she has died? Is a child wanted who is identical to another family member so that, for instance, bone marrow or a kidney might be transplanted with no danger of tissue rejection? These questions bring us into an ethical minefield! First of all, Auntie Daisy can never be duplicated because the new baby can never have the identical upbringing which made her such a unique and lovable person. Secondly, we enter the realms of ‘designer babies’, babies who are created, not for who they are and might become, but for their usefulness.

Supporters of genetic manipulation and cloning are clever: they speak of the benefits to those with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and heart disease, sicknesses we all know. In fact, they are only speculating on the possible value and cures and have no irrefutable proof of their claims.

Many arguments have waged in the media about the need for human stem cells in disease research and treatment. A stem cell has the potential to become any type of cell in the body, suggesting that, when there is disease or injury, they could potentially regenerate and replace damaged cells and tissues. There are different sources and types of stem cell, but they all have the same capacity to develop into whatever sort of cell the body needs.

When stem cell research began, it was with those which are abundantly present in unborn babies, helping them to grow and develop within the womb. This raised massive ethical questions because it meant creating human embryos in order to manipulate and destroy them.
More recently, scientists have discovered that stem cells are present in adult bone marrow, skin and other tissues. These do the same as those from a foetus but without the massive ethical problems associated with the creation and destruction of a human embryo... or did not have the same ethical problems until now. We have just heard that, for the first time, adult skin cells have been combined with an unfertilised human egg, which has been reprogrammed to start developing into an embryo. It is a process which has worked in some animals, but until now, had failed in humans. The team of scientists concerned discovered that they could overcome the glitch in the system with humans by adding caffeine to the mix.

The scientists say that they are only interested in producing embryonic stem cells, not babies and have no intention of seeing if they can take their discovery further into the realm of cloning individuals. They are involved in therapeutic, not reproductive cloning. “Our research is directed toward generating stem cells for use in future treatments to combat disease,” said the statement, quoting lead researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov. “While nuclear transfer breakthroughs often lead to a public discussion about the ethics of human cloning, this is not our focus, nor do we believe our findings might be used by others to advance the possibility of human reproductive cloning.”

However Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston responded, saying: “This means of making embryos for research will be taken up by those who want to produce cloned children as ‘copies’ of other people. Whether used for one purpose or the other, human cloning treats human beings as products, manufactured to order to suit other people’s wishes.”

“It is inconsistent with our moral responsibility to treat each member of the human family as a unique gift of God, as a person with his or her own inherent dignity. A technical advance in human cloning is not progress for humanity but its opposite.”

Together with Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, Cardinal O’Malley pointed out that “Creating new human lives in the laboratory solely to destroy them is an abuse denounced even by many who do not share the Catholic Church’s convictions on human life. No matter what the Oregon researchers intend to do with their studies, the techniques they have perfected might lead others to pursue human cloning that produces babies.”

In Britain and elsewhere, it is illegal to implant a cloned embryo into a woman's womb, but, sadly, someone, somewhere, will ignore legislation and will try it out to see what happens. Are we now on a new slippery slope towards a frightening future?