May 29, 2024

US bioethics group calls for cloning ban

Whatever happened to the mad cloners?

Nowadays, according to Google News, media interest in cloning is focused on cloning credit cards. There are some articles about cloning mammoths and the Tasmanian Tiger, but almost none about cloning human beings. What a contrast to the supercharged decade following the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997!

But while cloning may have tiptoed out of news rooms, it lingers in laboratories, says a bioethics group called the Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science, which includes several former members and staffers from the President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics. With the lull in the debate, now is the time for legislative reform, the Council argues. It wants to ban all forms of human cloning as well as the creation of embryos for research.

The Council, whose co-chair is Robert P. George, of Princeton University, has just published its extended moral and medical arguments against human cloning in the journal The New Atlantis. It argues that “If research cloning is not stopped now, we face the prospect of the mass farming of human embryos and fetuses, and the transformation of the noble enterprise of biomedical research into a grotesque system of exploitation and death.”

Cloning continues. In May 2013 Shoukhrat Mitalipov, of Oregon Health & Science University, successfully cloned human embryos and then destroyed them to create embryonic stem cells. This was precisely what had sparked the furore ten years earlier. After the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, however, which allowed researchers to develop therapies without creating or destroying embryos, most researchers pushed cloning onto the back burner.

At the moment, the Council says, cloning is still morally repugnant for most of the American public. Only “an extreme commitment to reproductive autonomy for its own sake” could justify it. However, as the Council perceptively points out,

“But autonomy is a powerful force in our culture, so we should not imagine that cloning-to-produce-children will forever remain anathema to the American public. Other foundations of family life that have been held as common sense since time immemorial have been increasingly eroded by advocates of unfettered autonomy in a remarkably short time. Taking a stand against cloning while there is still a consensus among Americans that cloning is profoundly wrong will be an essential part of a defense of the family in coming years.”

The report also predicts future developments which combine cloning with genetic engineering: genetically engineered children; embryonic and fetal farming; growing prenatal human beings outside of the womb (ectogenesis); creating headless babies for growing organs; interspecies cloning; and artificial eggs and sperm.

One bioethicist who has not forgotten about cloning is Julian Savulescu, a professor at Oxford University and editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics. He recently ridiculed opponents of cloning and the yuck factor in a blog post. But “the wisdom of repugnance” is one issue that the Witherspoon Council develops in its report. It acknowledges that “the fact that most people find the idea of human cloning morally troubling and repugnant is not proof that cloning is wrong” but insists that the repugnance is provoked by deeper moral considerations, which it discusses at some length.

The report concludes with suggestions for amending state and Federal laws dealing with human embryos:

“The justification for engaging in cloning-for-biomedical-research is weaker than ever before, thanks to the availability of viable alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells. And yet experiments have continued, bringing us closer to the day when a pregnancy can be initiated with an embryo created through cloning. The practice of science in a free society is not exempt from democratic oversight, and in the case of cloning, such oversight is urgently needed. The time to act is now.”
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