If you think the ethical questions raised by IVF are tough, you’ll be totally flummoxed by those raised by human cloning. Claims of human cloning have occurred sporadically since the turn of the 21st century, yet none of them has been substantiated – with one exception. Dr Panayiotis Zavos, a Greek Cypriot immigrant to the USA, may soon go down in history as the person responsible for the first ever successful human clone. He has so far made a number of unsuccessful attempts, but with each one, the knowledge gained is bringing him and his team a little closer to success. I have included some links at the end of this blog for those who wish to learn more about him and his very controversial work.
Dr Zavos is an enigmatic figure who proves yet again just how much truth is stranger than fiction. He is a practicing Greek Orthodox Christian, and he puts forward arguments based on Bible verses in support of his work, even though most Christians would disagree with both the work and his interpretation of the Bible. Having been blocked by the laws of Western countries, he moved his work to Beirut in Lebanon where there are no laws to prevent human cloning, and he even met with the spiritual leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon to get his ‘blessing’ on the work of human cloning.
What sets his efforts apart from the other unsubstantiated claims of human cloning by secretive doctors and strange cults is that Dr Zavos has allowed independent journalists and a film crew to document his progress. A documentary was recently aired on pay TV and leaves no doubt that he is doing exactly what he says he is. This is not enough for others in the medical profession, though, who insist that Dr Zavos must open his work to the scrutiny of his peers, and accuse him of being after nothing more than fame and glory and a mountain of cash. Dr Zavos in turn responds that fame is not on his agenda, and that he is motivated mainly by the desire to help couples for whom every other avenue for having a child has failed them. His choice of candidates for his technique would certainly support this claim.
But we are not her to judge Dr Zavos, but to assess the process of cloning a human being. First we must turn to the ethical problems with the technique as it stands today.
One of the major objections raised against human cloning is that the procedure damages the genetic information in the cells, resulting in a very high rate of deformed individuals. Dolly, the famous sheep who broke open Pandora’s Box when she was cloned from a six year old sheep in 1997, took no less than 277 attempts before her creators got it right. Many of those were deformed sheep that did not survive. We may be willing to accept that attrition rate for sheep, but have we the right to do that to human beings? Thus, Dr Zavos is criticised for trying to do this far too early. Let us wait, his critics say, until we have improved the technique using animals. Once we have got it right, we can think about using it on humans, but to attempt it now on humans is criminal.
Then there is the risk of abuse. Earlier I compared human cloning to nuclear power, maintaining that both are technologies with tremendous potential for both good and evil. The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was so terrifying that no one has used a nuclear weapon in anger ever since. And yet, we still live in fear for we cannot be certain that some rogue state will one day break this taboo, with dreadful consequences. Human cloning too has the potential for dreadful consequences. What do you think of the following potential scenarios:
– A mother loses her 10 year old daughter in an accident. She saves a little of her daughter’s genetic material and has her cloned to ‘bring her back to life’ again.
– A laboratory clones a number of human beings but only allows them to grow to about 30 cells, never implanting them in a womb. They remove cells whenever they grow to 30 cells and use the removed cells for research. If you consider life to begin at conception, is this any way to treat a human being?
– A government decrees that the population needs to be ‘beautified’ or made smarter, and that henceforth, no natural children will be born, but only clones of the most beautiful or the most intelligent people.
– A caste of human clones is genetically engineered to be a servant class with very low IQ but large muscle bulk and stamina. The company that produces them rents them out for $20,000 per year (plus food and board, but only the most basic needs, since they are bred not to complain).
– Astronauts in weightless space have no need for legs – they use up energy and serve no purpose. Thus, NASA clones an astronaut race with no legs who can travel to far distant planets, happily living on spaceships for years with no legs.
– A billionaire realises he is getting old. He secretly clones himself ten times and locks up the clones in a hidden complex underground beneath his mansion. They are given only the most basic of their needs – food and water and warmth. They are not educated, they never learn to speak or understand speech, they never see the outside world. When the billionaire’s heart or liver or kidneys start to give out, he simply kills one of the clones and, hey presto! Instant perfect genetic match for a donor!
– Eventually, even the bank of identical organs can no longer keep the billionaire alive. His body is just too old. So he attempts a radically new procedure: he has his brain transplanted into the healthiest of the young clones, effectively giving himself another lifetime on the earth. If it succeeds, there may be no limit to how many times he may be able to jump into a new body, genetically, his own body.
Some of these scenarios are still science fiction, but some are possible today. The first one is the actual profile of one of Dr Zavos’ patients, and the second scenario is a reality right now in South Korea. The disturbing thing is that even the most fantastic of them may be a real possibility within the lifetime of people alive today.
Are we really mature enough as a human race to handle this kind of power? What will it do to the nature of our society, our families, and our relationships? If you cloned yourself, would the resultant human being be your brother or your son? What is the legal status of a clone? What inheritance rights would it enjoy over its donor? What are the psychological effects of being brought up by your genetic twin? How will the family unit be affected if cloning becomes widespread, and what effect will this have on society as a whole? We know that identical twins are more likely to suffer from heart disease and diabetes than non-identical twins: will there be increased health risks for clones? What about the danger of creating distinct classes in society based on genetics: what if we end up with a super race that considers all other humans their inferiors and servants? Are we willing to give up on the principle of the equality of all human beings?
The deepest of these questions lead us to ask perhaps the most basic question of all: what is it that makes a human being? Is it just the physical body, including its unique set of genes? Is it the experiences they go through in life, which have little to do with genes? And what about the unique spirit that God gives to each individual at conception: can it be transferred from one body to another as in the case of the brain transplant mentioned above? Is the spirit of a person linked to their genes, or their brain?
Should we clone human beings simply because we can? There are those who would say that human cloning is inevitable and it is foolish to think it can be stopped, as foolish as believing that one day all nations will destroy their nuclear weapons. If they are right, then we who are Christians need to come to grips with this bamboozling situation. Indeed, the whole world needs to, and fairly soon, too.
In the last blog under this topic I will survey what various religions have said about human cloning and then bravely attempt to address some of these moral and ethical questions, and try to at least point the way to some possible answers.
Links to info on Dr Zavos and his attempts to clone a human being: