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.