Is cloning ethical?

According to professors at Portland State University, much of the fear surrounding human cloning stems from a lack of understanding of the motivations behind the research, which calls into question the very meaning of what it is to be human,

The cloning of a human embryo by South Korean scientists last week has added new fervor to an already heated and polarized debate over the ethics of human embryo research. Spurred by their findings, the team of scientists responsible for the cloning of Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, has announced plans to begin human cloning research.

Meanwhile, in the United States, South Dakota’s state legislature responded passed legislation banning all human embryo research.

One cause for anxiety over cloning in the United States is poor understanding of the issues, according to Dr. Lisa Weasel, a PSU professor who specializes in bioethical issues.

“There is a lot of fear and science fiction and misunderstanding, and that makes the debate more difficult,” she said. “People think that human cloning is going to be making a ‘mini-me’ for organ production.”

According to Weasel, many may not understand that the goal of the vast majority of human cloning research is not to produce a cloned human child.

Dr. Michael Bartlett, an assistant professor of biology at PSU, agreed with Weasel, adding that most scientists regard “reproductive cloning” to be so full of complications that it is unethical.

“Reproductive cloning is a crackpot idea, and I think most people would agree with that,” he said.

Research like the recently completed project in South Korea focuses on what is tentatively called “therapeutic cloning.”

Therapeutic cloning aims to use cloned embryos for the production of “stem cells,” special types of cells that can be developed into other types of human cells. Many scientists’ claims for the potential medical benefits of stem cell research have been extremely optimistic, predicting that the cells could be used to regenerate tissue damaged by everything from diseases to genetic conditions.

In addition to potential long-term benefits, therapeutic cloning would help scientists gain a better basic understanding of human genetics and development, according to Bartlett.

“This would provide a very important cellular model for studying basic human development issues,” he said.

Reproductive cloning aside, therapeutic cloning raises some difficult ethical questions of its own, perhaps the most difficult of which is the question of when an embryo becomes a person with a right to life.

“It goes back to the issue of where life begins,” Weasel said. “It hits on a lot of other debates in the U.S., like abortion.”

While many scientists tout the potential benefits of stem cell research, the embryo is destroyed in the process of removing stem cells from it. Many people view the destruction of the embryo as killing a person, and have opposed stem cell research because of it.

“We have gotten caught up in this belief war,” Patricia Backlar, a philosophy professor at PSU said.

“The question relevant to doing research with an embryo is, ‘What is the moral status of the embryo?'” Backlar said. “Is it nothing but a cluster of cells, or is it something else of significance? For some people, it is something of significance and it is very distressing for them when they are destroyed.”

Backlar is director of PSU’s biomedical ethics certificate series and a senior scholar for the Center for Ethics in Health Care at OHSU. She also served as a commissioner on President Bill Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which addressed embryonic research issues.

Backlar speculated that deeply-felt religious beliefs in the United States create a roadblock for embryonic research that may not exist elsewhere. South Korea, for example, is predominantly Buddhist, and the different perspective on life and death in Buddhism may cause South Koreans to have a different perspective on the status of an embryo than in the predominantly Christian United States.

“The culture may be more conducive to promoting cloning research,” Backlar said of South Korea. He pointed out that the women who donated the eggs for the cloning experiment all did so voluntarily, despite the invasive procedure of extracting them. “People were eager to be involved with this,” he said.

With such a polarized debate, the future of stem cell research in the United States remains uncertain.

“There is a tentative future where we don’t want to say no, but we can’t quite say yes, either,” Weasel said.

Weasel pointed out that over time people tend to become more accepting of controversial medical advances, citing that the debate over in vitro fertilization has tapered off over the last 25 years.

Currently, however, the Bush administration has been adamant in its opposition to human cloning research and most types of embryonic research. The federal government has refused to fund research related to stem cells in the United States, but it is still conducted under private funding.

“In this country there are people who have broken their political ranks and feel this research should go forward,” Backlar said.

U.S. scientists are also motivated to continue stem cell research out of a fear that they could fall behind other countries, according to Weasel. “We’re dependent on being a leader in biomedical research,” she said.

The only thing that seems certain, according to the professors, is that the debate over human cloning will continue for some time.

“It should be a national debate and a world debate,” Bartlett said. “No single person should make a decision for us.”