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"The grisly science of embryo cloning".

An article by Roger Highfield, the science correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, appeared under this headline in London's Week in August 2000. Highfield described how recent authors distinguish between reproductive cloning, in which a new animal or human being is created from one "parent" and therapeutic cloning, the purpose of which is regenerative therapy. Such therapy uses material taken from human embryos as therapeutic products in the (possible future) treatment of certain illnesses. The two-way classification is not accurate because both types of cloning are reproductive: it's just that in (so-called) therapeutic cloning a human being is created in vitro for the specific purpose, first, of experimentation, and secondly, if the research is successful, so that its tissues can be mined for use in medical treatments. In other words embryos will be created and then killed in order that other human beings can be cured of diseases. If the research is successful, thousands or millions of human embryos will be created and destroyed in order to produce medical products. The program both depends on and creates a deep contempt for (early) human life. Highfield's explanation of the technique of therapeutic cloning runs as follows:
 Regenerative therapy involves the harvesting of pluripotent or stem cells,
 that is, cells which can give rise to many different kinds of tissue. Such
 cells exist in embryos; adult stem cells, by contrast, normally only give
 rise to specialized tissues. Implanted pluripotent stem cells have been
 shown to regenerate a wide range of tissues including cardiac muscle and
 damaged nerves. But there is a serious obstacle: if a patient is given an
 organ grown from someone else's cells the organ is likely to be rejected.
 The proposed solution is to create cells from the patient himself. In
 theory this can be done in two ways. One method involves taking a cell from
 the patient and fusing it with a human egg emptied of its genetic material.
 The resulting embryo can then be "mined" for stem cells. There are two
 possible sources of the human eggs needed for this technique: they can be
 donated knowingly or unknowingly by adult women undergoing IVF treatment;
 or they could be taken from aborted female foetuses.

 The other method of creating cells from the patient himself would involve
 finding a way to "rewind" adult stem cells, converting them into
 pluripotent cells. That method would not involve the creation and
 destruction of human embryos.


Highfield reports that a problem has been encountered when attempting the first kind of regenerative therapy: embryonic stem cells don't always grow into the needed kind of tissue. Instead a special type of cancer develops, a mixture of gut, muscles, nerves, teeth, and facsimiles of legs and arms. In May 1996, the journal Neurology reported the case of a sufferer from Parkinson's disease who died a year after having a foetal tissue transplant. An autopsy disclosed that a mixture of bone, skin, and hair tissue had filled the ventricles of his brain.

Cloning has already been globalized. In America, then-President Clinton issued a directive stating that it will be lawful for pharmaceutical companies and private research establishments to fund experiments carried out on human embryos provided that the only embryos used are "spares" left over from IVF treatments. For those "spares" are already destined for destruction. Mr. Clinton assumed that the creation of "excess embryos" in IVF is unavoidable. But it must surely be possible to fertilize one egg at a time, in vitro as well as in the womb. The Washington Times reported that the president asked his Health and Human Resources secretary, Ms. Donna Shalala, to check out the ethics of the situation and she told him the ethics is fine--no problem. Clinton dealt with what he took to be the nation's only fear relating to embryo research by promising that such research will not be funded by American taxpayers.

Australian national guidelines prevent scientists from creating embryo cells for clinical purposes though the matter is under review by a parliamentary enquiry. Meanwhile a team at Monash University, which according to The Sydney Morning Herald "has secured a large injection of private funding," is carrying out research on imported cells extracted from human embryos in Singapore.

In October 2000, the Berlin paper Die Welt reported that a group of Australian and American scientists announced that they had created a "bizarre creature" that was half human and half pig and had lived for several days. They are applying for a patent at the European patenting center in Munich in order to continue their experiments "for medical research purposes."

In Britain the government recently set up a committee of experts whose task it was to make recommendations about human cloning. The chairman, Dr. Liam Donaldson, is the British government's Chief Medical Officer. He described his committee as "The Expert Group." Its brief was:
 to undertake an assessment of the anticipated benefits of new areas of
 research using human embryos, the risks and the alternatives, and, in the
 light of the final assessment, to advise whether these new areas of
 research should be permitted.


The CMO and his Expert Group published their report in August 2000. It recommended that scientists be allowed to grow cells from cloned human embryos in order to regenerate diseased tissue in patients suffering from various illnesses. That method, they decided, was more promising than any of the alternatives. Human embryos would be grown in laboratories to the age of fourteen days and harvested for their stem cells. Any left over would have to be destroyed. The group also recommended that reproductive cloning should remain a criminal offense. They supported these recommendations unanimously. Parliament was to be allowed a free vote on the matter. Dr. Donaldson is reported as having said: "they must do the right thing." In January this year, MPs voted as Donaldson advised.

The Washington Times said, "Far from making the research methods more palatable to those who prefer to protect the lives of the unborn, [Mr. Clinton's] guidelines are a laughable attempt at ethics," adding "scientists have poor responses to their critics." In Australia, Dr. Greg Pike of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute said that research on human embryos is both unnecessary and morally unacceptable. In Britain, Cardinal Winning said "We are talking about the cloning of human beings --not balls of cells but unborn children ... `therapeutic cloning' is the ultimate misnomer, for it actually means killing." The cardinal asked whether people really want to unlock this door into a world in which human beings are no longer valued as individuals but as vehicles for creating new medical products. However, Boris Johnson, the editor of the Spectator and a parliamentary candidate for the Tory party, supported the research:
 In this ethical balancing act the adult human being must come out on top.
 The embryo involved is a far cry from anything we could consider human.
 Never more than fourteen weeks old [a Freudian slip for fourteen days] it
 consists of about 100 cells and is smaller than the full stop at the end of
 this sentence.


He goes on:
 As for the objection that it means "treating human beings casually" I'm
 afraid there is nothing new in that. Of the 763,509 embryos created in IVF
 between 1991 and 1998, 184,000 were stored, 48,000 were used in research
 and 238,000 were destroyed.


Mr. Johnson doesn't say what happened to the other 293,509.

The issue of embryo research raises a number of questions that have nothing to do with the feasibility of techniques. Unlike the creation and destruction of a rag doll for a Guy Fawkes bonfire, the creation and destruction of human embryos is not a morally neutral matter.

Let us begin the next part of this discussion by considering the role of "slippery slope" arguments in reasonings about practical matters. After that, let's examine the meaning of the expression "playing God." Finally, and more fundamentally, we ought to try to decide whether morality has an absolute component or is merely a rubbery set of ever-changing dicta.

The setting up of advisory committees indicates that some governments at least do not wish scientists to have complete freedom in carrying out research on human embryos. It appears that those governments are either afraid of the possible effects on public opinion or recognize, however dimly, that the proposed research raises moral as well as purely technical questions.

Some of the people and organizations opposed to experimenting on human embryos condemn the practice outright because the research both depends on and creates a deep contempt for early human life. Others argue that it will produce a slippery slope leading to the legalization of practices which many ordinary citizens believe to be profoundly wrong. (Reproductive cloning of human beings is one such possibility.)

There isn't just one slippery slide here. The reports of advisory committees produce conjunctions of interlocking slopes each of which lends force to the others and which taken together, and on the evidence of what scientists themselves predict, might well produce a global avalanche quite soon. Abortion was legalized in Britain in 1967; a few years later two separate advisory committees (Peel in 1972, Polkinghorne in 1989) decided that the use of aborted fetal tissue as experimental material is desirable provided various guidelines are observed. Another two committees (Warnock in 1985, Donaldson in 2000) decided that experimenting on human embryos created in vitro is desirable, again providing guidelines are followed. The option of forbidding those researches altogether was never considered, largely, I suppose, because the committees of enquiry were set up after the research was already under way. Ignoring the option of a total ban altered the ethical landscape by steering the enquiries into simplistic discussions of medical utility and laboratory techniques. Ordinary empirical evidence indicates that legislation intended to control or restrict iffy practices can easily end up by silently condoning them. Abortion laws in America and Britain provide a striking example; reformers did not intend that abortion on demand be permitted but abortion on demand soon became the norm in both countries.

The decisions taken by Clinton and the British Parliament are sure to generate slippage. Firstly, because laws which attempt to guide or govern the activities of scientists are not easy to police. Can law enforcement agents stand about inside research establishments counting the days since this or that cloned embryo was produced? Have the British controls ever resulted in scientists being questioned by the police? Not as far as I know. Secondly, there is strong evidence of future slippage in the forecasts and wishes of the scientific community. A few days after the Donaldson report on regenerative cloning was published, British scientists predicted that reproductive cloning is certain to follow.

Under the headline "Human Cloning is Now Inevitable" The Independent described its survey of scientific opinion on August 30, 2000. The paper asked thirty-two scientists for their views and reported as follows:
 Most of those who took part [in the survey] accepted that the successful
 use of cloned embryos in medical research would lead to a re-evaluation of
 the law banning reproductive cloning.... [M]ore than half thought that if
 technical and safety issues were overcome it was certain that reproductive
 cloning would be attempted within the next twenty years.


Peter Brinsden, the medical director of the Bourn Hall Clinic (which specializes in IVF treatment), was reported as saying, "Reproductive cloning for ethically approved indications would now be acceptable if properly explained."

The medical director of a London fertility clinic, who wished to remain anonymous, said "the equipment needed for cloning is simple and cheap, and whether it is approved or not it will happen. It is unstoppable." (It looks as if he won't let anyone stop him.) One biologist said "in time it will be done, though at first it might be camouflaged as just another method of assisting reproduction and called by some other name than cloning."

David Skuse, a geneticist at the Institute of Child Health in London, said:
 Once the technique for human reproductive cloning is technically feasible
 it will be done. What are now ethical boundaries will probably prove to be
 elastic in time.


Human beings are strongly tempted to infer that if some practice is already occurring it must be all right. If their inference was correct, it would follow that morality is completely elastic. Why? Because new things keep happening all the time.

One can see the temptation working in Boris Johnson, who says he is "afraid" that scientists are already experimenting on, and then destroying, thousands of human embryos and concludes that it must be all right to do so. Moreover, he takes it as evident that "the adult patients must come out on top." Presumably he thinks ten-year-old patients must come out about half-way down.

There is nothing new in Johnson's way of reasoning. The scientist Paul Ehrlich, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1908, tested various forms and various doses of his "Magic Bullet" Salvarsan, on prostitutes handed over to him by the police. That the prostitutes objected was neither here nor there--the cure of respectable young men suffering from syphilis "must come out on top." It is said that in the 1930S experiments were conducted, without their consent, on black prisoners in American jails; no doubt the experimenters argued that the health of law-abiding people "must come out on top." The merely scientific thinking behind all these practices is not irrational; after all, the very best experimental animal for testing treatments intended for human beings is another human being.

Donaldson's report does not ask any questions about ethics. Presumably the Expert Group either had no ideas about such matters or confusedly believed that research on human embryos must be all right because it is already happening. It is noticeable, too, that the Expert Group did not concern itself with public opinion. Perhaps the experts decided the public can go hang.

Donaldson's report is rather different in tone from the recommendations emanating from Mary Warnock's Committee of Enquiry into Embryology and Human Fertility (1985). Her committee contained individuals working in several different areas of expertise and therefore tended to reflect public opinion (at least to some extent). Her report had two parts, one representing the views of the majority and the other of the minority. Of the sixteen people on the committee, seven voted against allowing experimentation on human embryos. Donaldson's Expert Group had no need to issue a minority report because the experts were unanimous in their recommendations. Indeed unanimity was virtually guaranteed by the constitution of the group. Its fourteen members were: two government officials, viz the CMO himself and the Chief Scientific Advisor; ten other scientists, some of whom were clinicians; one professor of medical ethics; and one law lecturer. Its conclusions reflected the opinions (and the wishes) of scientists already working in the field of embryo research and related areas.

The attitudes of the experimenters are well-expressed by the biologist Richard Dawkins. He supports his fellow scientists' research on human embryos by alleging that "talk about playing God has no place in any valid argument" and insisting that "people who object to research [on cloning] must explain exactly who would be harmed by it." (My italics. Dawkins and Donaldson are both too fond of the word "must")

Richard Dawkins is the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and as such he is a kind of one-man Saatchi and Saatchi. But unlike that well-known advertising firm he doesn't rely solely on boosting his own product; he also spends time knocking religion, which he wrongly imagines to be the only possible source of opposition to his views. His remark about playing God is a typical example. It should be noted that the remark is simply confused. Dawkins presumably thinks that since (in his view) God doesn't exist, all talk about playing God must be false or meaningless. This shows, to start with, that he doesn't know the difference between truth and meaning on the one hand and validity on the other. (Perhaps he ought to buy a logic primer.) It also shows that he doesn't realize that figures of speech have literal equivalents. "Playing God" is a figure of speech. When it is analyzed, the resulting propositions are perfectly capable of being true or false. As such they can certainly have a place in valid arguments, and, if true, in sound arguments as well. So let's analyze it.

God-players are control freaks. God created man and the other animals; control freaks want to do something similar. Lenin is a good example. He thought he could forge a new society by creating a new kind of human creature. His methods, of course, were rather crude, often consisting of shooting or incarcerating out-dated varieties of mankind. Lenin's near-contemporaries, Francis Galton, who was Charles Darwin's cousin, and Leonard Darwin, Charles's son, were also God-players. Galton founded the Eugenics Society after perpetrating some extremely jejune statistical arguments; Leonard Darwin was one of the society's earliest chairmen. Their aim was to help create new and better human beings by recommending that superior people be encouraged to breed (though as it happens both were childless) while inferior types be made to undergo sterilization. One disenchanted member of the Eugenics Society described it as "an unattractive collection of snobs and racists."

Some of today's God-players make batches of new human beings in vitro and then weed out all but the strongest. Others weed out those not needed for medical research. Dr. Cloner, God-player of circa 2020, will doubtless "explain" that reproductive cloning is "ethically indicated" for higher types like scientists and doctors and millionaires.

God-players are motivated by hubris. According to ancient legend, hubris leads to Nemesis. Nietzsche reaffirmed that view when he pointed out that scientific thinking is not reflective; it cannot ask, and so does not know, what limits ought to be placed on its own enquiries. But (said Nietzsche) unless limits are imposed and accepted "science will dig the grave of the human race."

Hubris is the opposite of piety. It is a mixture of conceited overconfidence and insolent contempt.

All utilitarians, whether Benthamites or Millians or Dawkinsites, are overconfident. They have to be. They believe that future long-term and short-term harms and benefits can be successfully predicted and accurately weighed. This is foolish because the weightings given can only be arbitrary. It is also foolish because no one can say when "long-term" comes to an end. If dreadful harms appear on top of benefits, there is no wringing of utilitarian hands and no apologizing. What happens instead is that relatively short-term predictions are dropped in order to make way for ones which reach a little further into the future--and which will ultimately be replaced in their turn. If utilitarian theories were correct then morality would be as elastic as the ever-changing pseudocalculations which the theories make necessary.

Overconfidence, which is part of ordinary utilitarian armor, is indissolubly linked to the other main element of hubris, namely, an insolent contempt for "the gods" But what or who are "the gods"? In his book Animal Rights and Wrongs, Roger Scruton says (and rightly in my opinion) that piety need not presuppose the existence of supernatural beings. For Socrates, piety included respect for one's parents; for the Romans, it included respect for tradition. Piety, in short, is a kind of reverence for what is seriously important and has intrinsic (noninstrumental) value: human life, for example, and rights and justice and compassion and loyalty and beautiful animals and the environment--and the gods too, of course, if there are any.

Dawkins's other remark, that "people opposed [to cloning] must say exactly who they think will be harmed by it" (my italics, again) also needs looking at. To start with, it is a pretty obvious example of utilitarian over-confidence. Dawkins implies that accurate prediction is easy-peasy; so if his opponents are unable to say exactly who will be harmed that simply proves them to be a bunch of religious anti-scientific nitwits who deserve all the insolent contempt exhibited by the professor's rhetorical demand.

However, if scientists find prediction so easy, how come Professor Dawkins himself doesn't show us that in cloning harm is impossible or at the very least highly unlikely? Why does he suppose the onus of proof is on his opponents? Moreover, if opponents of cloning must say exactly who will be harmed, then surely Dawkins must say exactly who will benefit. In order to provide material for accurate calculations, his list of beneficiaries should be as complete as possible. He must not fail to remind us that behind every patient hoping for a cure there will be several well-paid biologists and geneticists; the benefits to them should not be overlooked. Dawkins mustn't forget President Clinton's directive, viz, that private companies are to spearhead embryo research; the benefits to shareholders should not be ignored. And he should not gloss over the fact that Geron-BioMed invests money in universities worldwide and has taken out patents on the human genome and on embryo stem cell techniques. He must not forget about the influence of greed on decision-making.

Destruction is harm. Killing is harm. Although Dawkins probably thinks an embryo is an It rather than a Who, there is no question but that embryos can be harmed. To destroy any living thing is to harm it. That a very small embryo feels no pain is neither here nor there; Dr. Shipman's murder victims felt no pain because he dispatched them with doses of morphia--but they were harmed all the same.

The aborted female foetuses mined for their eggs are harmed by the abortionist, not by the research scientist. The case is somewhat analagous to the situation in China where the bodies of executed criminals are mined by clinical scientists for transplant material. In both cases it could perhaps be said that the scientists themselves have been spiritually harmed by benefitting from the misfortunes of other human creatures.

The Reverend David Perry recently wrote in an English newspaper, "Richard Dawkins, for whom any mention of spirit or the spiritual is nonsense, is not competent to speak about human beings." Dawkins takes it for granted that nothing is wrong unless it causes material harm to human beings whose identity must be known "exactly." But just as there are spiritual things--for example, rights, justice, joy, sympathy, courage, decency, freedom, and pity--which are intrinsically good, so too there are spiritual evils which reasonable people know should be taboo. Absolute evils, whether material or spiritual, ought to be tabooed absolutely; it would be ludicrous and disgusting to set up "guidelines" for the practice of injustice or the reintroduction of slavery.

Thoughtful people understand that human beings can suffer serious harms that are not physical, not financial, and not merely emotional. Anyone who has been taught to think that mercy and courage and decency have no importance, that material benefits are the only things worth seeking, has been harmed as a human being.

Moral theory has to contain absolute components, it has to take note of intrinsic goods and intrinsic evils for otherwise it generates infinite regresses. Even Dawkins's utility calculus implicitly allows for one kind of intrinsic good, namely, the material benefit of (non-early) human beings. But that vision of good and evil is too narrow to sustain a rational moral theory.

The growth of widespread and insolent contempt for human life is a serious harm in itself. It also has harmful social consequences: for example, the pervasive criminality, seen in Russia and elsewhere, of Lenin's successors, Communists and capitalists alike.

And finally, not all wrongs are harms. Hubris, lack of piety, can easily do wrong without actually hurting anyone at all. To cut down a primeval forest (while taking care to plant new fast-growing trees which can be harvested to make cardboard containers for hamburgers) does not materially damage any specific human beings and might not even harm the environment. Nevertheless, destroying a beautiful irreplaceable work of nature is an evil thing to do.

On August 25, 2000, The Catholic Herald published an article about the Donaldson report written by Josephine Quintavelle. She described the style of Donaldson's document, and especially its repeated references to the Expert Group, as "an exercise in rank-pulling." Then she asked "Why had so many members [of the group] already endorsed therapeutic cloning, either by statement or by action, before the committee was convened?" (The answer, no doubt is: That's the very reason why they were asked to serve on the committee!)

The Expert Group claimed that embryo research is necessary because the alternatives remain "largely hypothetical." Less than a week after its recommendations were described in the newspapers, the journal Science reported that Drs. Tom Kondo and Martin Raft of University College London have shown that one type of adult brain cell can be converted back into neural stem cells. The stem cells thus converted could be used to treat stroke, Parkinson's Disease, and Alzheimer's, doing away with the supposed need to create and destroy human embryos. A couple of days after that, a news report in The Daily Telegraph (September 9, 2000) described the discovery of a vaccine made from a fragment of a protein. That vaccine, it is believed, will turn out to be a protection against Alzheimer's disease.

Those discoveries cannot have been made overnight. It is strange that no-one in the Expert Group had ever heard about the ongoing work of the people responsible.

Or perhaps some of them had ...

Jenny Teichman's Ethics and Reality is forthcoming from Ashgate in the UR.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Foundation for Cultural Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:response to Roger Highfield, The Daily Telegraph, August 2000
Author:Teichman, Jenny
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:4262
Previous Article:The Shadow of the Sun.
Next Article:Notes & Comments: September 2001.
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