The Complexities of Cloning

Anne Dickinson
Issue 3, April 2001

The lack of legislation in New Zealand relating to human cloning has been highlighted recently by the announcement that a team of scientists from Italy, Israel and the United States is seeking to use cloning to create human embryos, as a means of assisting infertile couples to have children.

In the minds of many people the word "cloning" generally conjures up pictures of identical human beings, created without using normal reproductive processes. However cloning is more complex than this popular understanding. The term "cloning" can be applied to the copying of pieces of DNA, forms of asexual reproduction in plants, the development of a line of cells or a tissue from a single cell, sub-dividing an embryo in the early stages of development to form two embryos (embryo splitting), as well as to the cell nuclear replacement technique used to create the first cloned sheep, Dolly.

With the development of stem cell research over the last few years, the terms reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning have emerged. Both processes begin in the same way, with the creation of a human embryo by cell nuclear replacement (cloning). This is done by removing the genetic material from a human egg or an already existing embryo (usually a "spare" embryo from infertility treatment) and replacing it with the genetic material taken from a cell of another person. This creates an embryo which is genetically the same as that person, and which is then stimulated to begin cell division. The purpose for which the cloned embryo has been created determines whether the cloning is described as reproductive or therapeutic.

If the embryo is placed in the uterus of a woman and implants, it may potentially become a foetus and then a child. This is referred to as reproductive cloning, or cloning for reproductive purposes. Many countries have legislation, which bans cloning for this purpose, and there is widespread opposition to it among scientists. Two bills on assisted human reproduction currently at the Select Committee stage in the New Zealand Parliament effectively ban cloning for reproductive purposes.

In therapeutic cloning the cloned embryo is allowed to grow into a ball of cells, but is not placed in the uterus of a woman. Stem cells are removed from the cloned embryo, destroying it. Stem cells are not specialised to form particular types of tissue and can be influenced to grow into tissues to replace damaged or diseased tissue, for example, in people with conditions such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, or in patients suffering from burns. Because the stem cells giving rise to the new tissue can come from a cloned embryo with the same genetic makeup as the patient, scientists expect that the problems of rejection usually associated with introducing new tissue into the body will not occur.

There are many potential applications of stem cell technology. It certainly offers startling new possibilities in medical treatment, which is why the cloning involved is often described as therapeutic cloning. However the cloning process is the same in reproductive and therapeutic cloning, and in both cases results in the creation of a human embryo with a genetic makeup identical to that of another person. In reproductive cloning the embryo would be allowed to develop into a child, whereas in therapeutic cloning the embryo is destroyed by the removal of stem cells.

Catholic teaching opposes reproductive cloning for a number of serious reasons. It offends against the personal and unique identity given to each individual by God. It denies an individual the right to have two genetic parents, and confuses family relationships. There are also serious questions concerning our right to so fundamentally alter the manner in which we come into existence, and the effects these actions could have on future generations and on individuals produced by cloning.

The Catholic Church is not alone in opposing cloning for reproductive purposes. In 1997 the European Parliament passed a resolution on cloning which stated:

"...the cloning of human beings, whether experimentally, in the context of fertility treatment, pre-implantation diagnosis, tissue transplantation or for any other purposes whatsoever cannot under any circumstances be justified or tolerated by any society, because it is a serious violation of human rights, and contrary to the principle of equality of human beings as it permits a eugenic and racist selection of the human race, it offends against human dignity, and it requires experimentation on humans..."

- European Parliament; Resolution on Cloning 12 March 1997

In therapeutic cloning the same moral objections exist as in reproductive cloning, but there are also serious issues associated with the destruction of an embryo when stem cells are removed from it. The cloned embryo can be created using a human egg, or by using an already existing embryo. In the latter case two embryos are destroyed.

From the moment of its creation the living human embryo is human life with an individual identity. At conception it begins its own continuous development, and cannot be considered at any point to be merely a simple mass of cells. The embryo has its own right to life, which cannot be sacrificed even for the good end of therapeutic benefit to other persons.

Some countries such as Spain and France have banned cloning for both reproductive and therapeutic purposes. Italy is considering allowing the use of stem cells from aborted foetuses, umbilical cords and adults to be used in stem cell research, but not cloned embryos. Allowing cloning for therapeutic purposes but banning cloning for reproductive purposes, as has been done in the United Kingdom, is one possibility which will be considered in New Zealand. The United Kingdom legislation allows human embryos to be created by cloning, but forbids their implantation in the uterus of a woman and requires their destruction in stem cell research. Legislation which follows this approach is not legislation against cloning, but against allowing cloned human beings to survive, as highlighted by The Pontifical Academy for Life in its "Reflections on Cloning":

"A prohibition on cloning which would be limited to preventing the birth of a cloned child, but which would still permit the cloning of an embryo-foetus, would involve experimentation on embryos and foetuses and would require their suppression before birth – a cruel, exploitative way of treating human beings."

The Pontifical Academy for Life writers also point out that a cloned embryo is human life, and that destroying it is an immoral act. Creating human embryos to be of use to other human beings, and enacting legislation which requires the destruction of human life are actions which raise serious questions of ethics and justice should they be considered in New Zealand.

Anne Dickinson is the Director of Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand and a member of the Panel of Advisers for The Nathaniel Centre.