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It's easier to clone embryo than to figure consequences.

We Americans tend to act first and deal with the consequences later, if at all. The multibillion dollar cleanup of nuclear waste at armed services bases is but one example of the consequence of delayed reflection in the development of nuclear energy.

Artificial reproduction is another area where practice outpaced reflection. The technology of in vitro fertilization was introduced into medical practice with precious few clinical trials to establish either safety or efficacy. So, too, with surrogate motherhood: Childlessness was resolved with little, if any, thought given to the consequences of the practice.

Such practices in artificial reproduction have led to much misery and heartbreak for all parties, particularly for the children resulting from such practices. Then there are the cases in which individuals seek jurisdiction over frozen embryos following divorce. While the moral status of the human pre-embryo -- frozen or not -- is murky at, best, clearly someone desires this entity and such claims are actionable.

What has made all this possible is the technology of in vitro fertilization. IVF allows us literally to hold conception in our hands and to observe the process of embryogenesis. We have a privileged access to the beginnings of humankind.

And now comes the report of the splitting and cloning of human embryos (New York Times, Oct. 24). We already knew that a cell or two could be taken from the pre-embryo without harming the developmental process.

This has been done with human pre-embryos following IVF so that the cells could be cultured to discover if the pre-embryos were at risk for cystic fibrosis. The division of animal embryos and cloning of them, while not yet routine, is certainly an accepted practice. Desired traits can be more efficiently obtained through this method. Now these technologies have been extended to human pre-embryos.

We have crossed yet another critical threshold: from sexual reproduction through sexual intercourse, to reproduction without sex in IVF, to reproduction without sex or a traditional family in surrogate motherhood, to the reality of Aldous Huxley's Bokanovsky Principle described in Brave New World, which allowed the manufacturing of on average 72 identical twins from one fertilized egg.

I marvel at Huxley's prescience, for we have developed and implemented almost all the technologies he described in 1937 when he wrote this prophetic dystopia. That fact alone might give us significant pause.

But what is wrong with this technology? Why would it cause a doctor to suggest (New York Times) "it would have been better if (the) experiment had never been discussed"? Is the error in discussing what was done or is the error in the doing?

One moral problem presented in the article has been alluded to in prior discussions of cloning: keeping identical copies to provide an artificial organ or to replace a child who died. One cannot discount or deny the grief of parents who have lost a child nor dismiss the desire to seek relief from a failed organ.

But what does the practice of maintaining replacements through cloning say of the status of the one who develops from the preserved material? Has not this being simply been reduced to a means to an end? Even if one argues that the reserved pre-embryo has no moral standing, what is one to say of the one who comes from that being.? Has not this being's essential humanity simply been dismissed on grounds of reduction to the status of replacement.7

Such replacement talk avoids the fact that such entities are living beings with the human genotype and clearly reduces such beings to objects or commodities. The problem is that such talk assumes that "we" are not "they." But such an assumption is wrong precisely because it is the "we-ness" in the "they-ness" we desire. How else could "they" be replacements for "us" if "they" are not identical to "us"? To reduce such beings to commodities is to do the same to ourselves. Communality of identity suggests communality of fate.

Cloning raises additional problems with respect to parenthood and lineage. Since surrogacy separates the genetic, gestational and social roles of parenthood, we have the possibility of 10 forms of motherhood and three of fatherhood.

One would think this possibility complicates things enough. But cloning presents still new possibilities. For the genetic material comes from two individuals, is located in an enucleated egg, and then can go to a uterus yet to be determined. This could give rise to a type of double surrogacy in which the genetic information reposes in a donor cell that then resides in a donor uterus.

The biological problems encountered in attempting to trace one's genetic heritage through that thicket will probably be child's play compared to the legal problems sure to follow such parenthood at a distance. We know that the inability to trace one's lineage already is a source of dismay to many; witness both children who were adopted or born of donor artificial insemination. Such a technology only gives new biological grounds for making this quest for biological identity more traumatic.

Finally we need to keep in mind that the pre-embryo is a living organism and bears the human genotype. As such it manifests a certain intrinsic value. The pre-embryo formed of human egg and sperm is neither a product that is the sum of its parts nor the result of a manufacturing process. It is a living, developing organism and the ultimate end of that development is quite clear.

While the moral standing of this organism might not be the same as that of the adult, nonetheless the pre-embryo has some moral standing, given what it is. One can, on that basis, argue for some forms of protection, even though one might not be able to argue for absolute protection. Therefore, claims of privacy or autonomy alone are not sufficient justification for the treatment of the pre-embryo. The moral standing of the pre-embryo must also be taken into account.

Retreat after crossing a line is always difficult. But perhaps a moratorium on research, similar to the one called for in light of the potential problematic implications of recombinant DNA technologies, is in order. Our competitive scientific edge will not be lost and our common humanity will be enhanced by a consideration of the implications of such experiment before we rush to clinical applications.

The Vatican document on artificial reproduction says that "our era needs such wisdom more than bygone ages if the discoveries made by man are to be further humanized" (Intro, 1). Perhaps a moratorium on such experiments as we consider their ethical significance would manifest such wisdom.
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Author:Shannon, Thomas A.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Nov 12, 1993
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