IVF and Cloning Part 1

 

 One of the major issues challenging our ethics in the 21st century is the issue of human cloning. There are compelling parallels to the rise of nuclear energy 60 years ago. Whilst nuclear energy has given us a relatively clean source of incredible amounts of energy, and is even used in medicine to save lives, it also brought with it the ability to destroy the world as we know it. Would we have been better off if the power within the atom had never been unleashed?

Cloning today provides a stunningly similar set of ethical questions. Most people are happy with the idea of cloning plants or even animals if it will provide some benefit to humanity, but when it comes to considering cloning a human being, we run into a minefield of questions, for most of which we have yet to find satisfactory answers.

Nor is it a hypothetical question any more. At this very moment, as you read these words, there are serious efforts underway to produce the first living human clones, and they are getting closer and closer to succeeding.

Firstly, a few basic definitions. I am talking here about reproductive cloning, the production of a fully functioning living human being from the cell of another human. This is different to therapeutic cloning which only involves the production of groups of cells or even tissues from the cells of a human being. With reproductive cloning, the cloned individual is genetically identical to the donor, sort of an identical twin, except they might be born 30 years apart!

Now, we have had test tube babies (IVF) for a few decades. But IVF involves combining genetic material from two individuals to produce a baby, much the same as nature does. Even here, we find a multitude of ethical questions…

 

–          When does life begin?

–          Can we destroy unneeded embryos?

–          Is it right to implant an embryo in a surrogate mother?

–          If the husband is unable to provide viable sperm, is it acceptable to use sperm from a stranger? Could this be considered a form of adultery (although no actual adulterous relationship has occurred, the results are the same).

–          Is it acceptable to use IVF to give a gay or lesbian couple their own child?

 

The Coptic Church has a more developed position on these sorts of questions than it does about cloning, obviously because IVF has been around for a lot longer as a real world issue. We consider that life begins at conception, for that is the first moment at which the embryo has all the genetic information that makes her who she is. In a sense, the only difference between a fertilised egg and an adult human being is one of number, not nature. Both are individual human beings, but one has one cell, the other has trillions.

This answers the question of whether it is right to destroy unneeded embryos – no it isn’t, for that means killing a human being, one that is unable to defend itself too. With the issue of surrogacy we start entering muddy waters. There are many social and psychological pitfalls here, and most in the Church would say surrogacy is not an acceptable option. Certainly not for money. Others might say it is in a way an extension of the “wet nurse” that is even mentioned favourably in the Bible. Instead of another woman providing milk for a newborn baby, she is now providing a little bit more – sustenance and protection for the nine months before birth. Interestingly, there is an old Egyptian tradition that says that you cannot marry a person who has suckled from the same breast as you, for that is considered to have made you siblings. I wonder how that might apply to surrogate motherhood? Especially since breast pumps have made wet nurses obsolete these days.

Then of course there are extensions to IVF that haven’t yet happened, but are quite possible. Techniques are available today for finding out quite early whether an embryo has the genetic defects that lead to serious and sometimes life threatening hereditary diseases. Although the Church would not condone the fertilisation of a dozen embryos and then the destruction of those with the faulty gene, it can accept using genetic engineering to correct the problem in a gene and thus produce a healthy child instead of a sick one.

But imagine a donor catalogue where parents could choose the sperm or egg donor with the characteristics of their choice. Choose a famous concert pianist and get a child with musical genes! Genetic Engineering may open up the way to creating your own baby, much the way you create your own computer at a Dell website. Instead of choosing the specifications of your RAM and hard drive, you choose eye colour, height, physique and so on.

A brave new world indeed! Are we ready to cope with such power? Disturbing images of the Tower of Babel spring to mind. Do we have the right to “play God” in this way? Is there anything morally wrong with parents choosing the eye and hair colour of their children, or the inherent abilities they will have? Or were we meant to just accept whatever God gave us? How do the Christian concepts of humility and surrender to God’s will apply to these issues?

I will try to address these questions and raise some more regarding human cloning in coming blogs. In the meantime, your comments are most welcome.

 Fr Ant

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2 Replies to “IVF and Cloning Part 1”

  1. Were not the concumbines of patriarchs in the OT “surrogates”?

    And Abouna, that old Egyptian tradition- I thought that was an Arab teaching. Apparently, and forgive me for any offence, but in Islamic tradition (haddith) there is a teaching that if you are breast-fed by a woman, even an adult, they become family (Book 008, Number 3425), and the woman does not have to dress the hajib (don’t have a reference for this).

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  2. Permit me to add my two cents…

    I’ll start with the cloning issue because that’s an easy one. Let’s just say that a human being is cloned and has the same genetic make-up as another. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the cloned human being will have his own distinct soul separate from his source, so they are not the same person. Identical twins are genetically the same and yet they are two separate people with two separate souls. So that is not a dilemma in itself, we are not creating the same human being who will be subject to the same judgements as his source, because he is a distinct human who will be accountable for his own actions.
    So it just comes down to the ‘playing God’ issue. But are we really ‘playing God’, or are we exercising the gift of knowledge and the gift of technology that God has freely given? Human life begins from two separate cells which are not alive in themselves, so what is the difference if through God-given technology we are able to re-create this using different cells that are neither sperm nor ova? I understand that through natural reproduction an individual’s genetic make-up is from two sources, but what is the issue if an individual’s genetic make-up is taken from only one individual? It is not parenthood which determines final judgement, your genetic make-up has no bearing, so technically it shouldn’t matter.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning human cloning, I think it’s a path that should not be taken if for nothing more than the moral and ethical dilemma it causes. That being said however, cloning is technically not wrong (I think?), but to what end are we pursuing it? Give me a valid reason that has potential to better human life and I may change my mind.

    The same can be said about embryonic stem-cell research. Which of us can truly say that we would condemn the science if it had the potential to treat or cure one of our children or loved ones who had some disease which can be treated by it? Ask yourselves that question honestly.

    Which brings me to the issue of the killing of embryos. We know, or believe that life begins at conception, so any embryo created in a petri dish for IVF already has human life. The practice of IVF is such that many embryos are created and frozen for potential future use. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you can only freeze your embryos for a period of 12 years, so what to do after that if a woman does not wish them implanted? If they are going to be destroyed anyway, if they are going to die anyway, then isn’t it a good thing to use them for stem-cell research rather than have them discarded and die in vain? I am all against creating embryos for the sole purpose of this science, but unwanted embryos should be able to be used. At least the embryos will not have died in vain and have the potential to help another human being. If we cannot accept this, then we should also be condemning the IVF science, at least until such time that it is developed so that no excess embyros are created and frozen.

    Interestingly, the Jewish faith holds the belief that an embryo or foetus is not a human being until it takes its first breath outside the womb. So they do not condemn abortion. The Christian faith moved away from this due to the belief in the Incarnation, that the foetus in the Virgin was already the God-Man even before his birth and from the instant he was conceived. So it also follows that any embyro has life from the moment of conception.

    Surrocacy is a touchy subject. But let’s move away from the psychological issues it may cause, after all, the Church seems to focus on the technicalities of these issues when deciding upon them, rather than the psycological. A surrogate is not genetically attached to the foetus in her womb, so she is not its mother. She is merely providing it with nutrients until it is born. If the practice of cross-breast feeding is allowed then I do not see why surrogacy should be an issue of contention, because it is essentially the same thing.

    Anyway, that’s enough from me I think….

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