Friday, February 17, 2006

A Clone by Any Other Name

Someone in our congregation emailed me requesting information about the ethical issues related to stem cell research. One of his coworkers has been absent from work due to cardiac complications and his fellow employees are trying to raise money for him to undergo treatment that involves stem cells of some sort. To his credit, the gentleman in our church wanted clarification before he made a contribution. This request serves as a vivid reminder of why it's important for Christians to be aware of the ethical issues that accompany advances in medical technology. The following is an edited excerpt from my reply:

Before I made a financial contribution toward stem cell therapy, I'd want to know what kind of stem cell treatment is involved.

There are two methods for acquiring these cells which have the unique ability to transform into various kinds of tissue. The ethically controversial method involves harvesting the desired cells from human embryos produced by cloning or provided by fertility clinics (embryos created for the purpose of reproduction but no longer wanted by their parents).

What's referred to as therapeutic cloning requires taking a female egg, removing its nucleus, and replacing it with the genetic material of the person to be treated. By means of electrochemical stimulation, this cell begins the process of cellular division and is essentially an embryonic clone of the donor. Given the proper environment it would progress through the stages of maturation as would any other embryo.

Advocates of this method refer to it as therapeutic cloning because it involves the cloning of an individual in order to potentially cure him or her of a disease. Proponents contend that while it would be unethical to allow this embryo to come to full term (reproductive cloning), it's morally acceptable to destroy it in its earliest stages in order to benefit others suffering from various diseases. However, this is merely to justify taking some human lives in order to improve others.

In contrast to embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells are produced in various parts of our bodies and can be obtained without taking human life. I would have no problem supporting therapy involving these.

For more information about stem cell research, I encourage you to read an article offered by the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity called "Stem Cell Research and 'Therapeutic' Cloning: A Christian Analysis." It's written in a Q & A format and isn't very long. It will not only help you to make an informed decision about your participation in this situation but will also serve to equip you to confidently engage your coworkers on this important topic.
In an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times, Michael Gazzaniga, the director of Dartmouth's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, castigates President Bush for requesting that Congress "pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms." Gazzaniga takes issue with the President's referring to both therapeutic (or what he calls "biomedical") and reproductive cloning as egregious abuses. While he presumably thinks that such a description is fitting for the former kind of cloning, he finds it completely inappropriate for the latter. President Bush's characterization "makes it sound as if the medical community is out there cloning people, which is simply not true." Oh?

You'll have to read Gazzaniga's article for yourself but I find it quite confusing and contradictory. On one hand he denies that scientists are cloning people while acknowledging that both the products of reproductive and biomedical cloning are.....clones! For crying out loud, the article's title is "All Clones Are Not the Same!" If, as Gazzaniga claims, medical researchers are not cloning people, one wonders what exactly is being cloned? He writes that "the phrase 'in all its forms' is code, a way of conflating very different things: reproductive cloning and biomedical cloning." But in actuality, what makes reproductive and biomedical cloning differ is not the product or process but the intent of those doing the cloning. Concerning the oxymoron of so-called therapeutic cloning, Amy Coxon notes:

...there is absolutely no difference in the scientific techniques used to accomplish - or the embryonic human beings produced - via therapeutic cloning or the cloning of a human being for other purposes. The idea that an "organism" created by cloning is a "new type of biological entity never before seen in nature" is an attempt by scientists to hide the truth of this new technology behind scientific jargon. Instead of calling this cloned organism an embryo, which is precisely what it is, scientists have labeled it an "activated egg." This is again manipulation of terminology with the hope of deceiving the public. In fact, the term "therapeutic cloning" itself is used to deceive the general public into believing that human cloning is acceptable and beneficial in certain medical circumstances. With the media's and the scientific community's frequent misuse of scientific terminology, it is crucial that we as Christians correctly discern the meanings behind this terminology. If we do not take steps to understand the science, we cannot defend our position in an educated manner and therefore will have no public voice on these issues.
Gazzaniga says that in 2002, he and the other members of the President's Council on Bioethics "voted unanimously to ban reproductive cloning--the kind of cloning that seeks to replicate a human being." He goes on to say that this kind of cloning has not been attempted and is not in the works. But this is misleading. In an attempt to derive embryonic stem cells compatible with a diseased person's system, a procedure known as somatic cell nuclear transfer is performed. This involves replacing the nucleus of an unfertilized egg with a somatic cell from the patient. Cellular division is then stimulated so that eventually stem cells can be harvested from the embryonic clone which is destroyed in the process. Regardless of the absence of intent to allow the clone to mature into subsequent stages, the fact remains that it is a human clone.

If there is anything with which I agree with Dr. Gazzaniga about it's that at the heart of the moral debate surrounding biomedical cloning is a clash of ideas about what it means to be human. According to Gazzaniga, President Bush's concept of what constitutes humanness is "nonsensical" and "a form of the 'DNA is destiny' story."
To the contrary, he asserts, "...all modern research reveals that DNA must undergo thousands if not millions of interactions at both the molecular and experiential level to grow and develop a brain and become a person. It is the journey that makes a human, not the car."

When they're not accusing opponents of embryonic stem cell research of being dispassionate, they're accusing us of being unscientific. However, if you pay close attention to what Dr. Gazzaniga is saying, you'll see that his case does not rest on scientific conclusions but on a functionalist view of humanness or personhood. The distinction that Gazzaniga would like to make is a philosophical not a scientific one. The claim that only those members of the human species that have a brain functioning at a certain level count as human beings or persons is not one that can be verified or falsified by means of empirical inquiry. Furthermore, Gazzaniga's analogy between the earliest stage of human development and a vehicle is faulty. Regardless of how long a drive I take, it will never be true that I was a car. However, it is true that I was once an embryo.

Concluding his essay, Gazzaniga writes:

In his State of the Union speech, President Bush went on to observe that "human life is a gift from our creator-and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale." Putting aside the belief in a "creator," the vast majority of the world's population takes a similar stance on valuing human life. What is at issue, rather, is how we are to define "human life." Look around you. Look at your loved ones. Do you see a hunk of cells or do you see something else?
Most humans practice a kind of dualism, seeing a distinction between mind and body. We all automatically confer a higher order to a developed biological entity like a human brain. We do not see cells, simple or complex-we see people, human life. That thing in a petri dish is something else. It doesn't yet have the memories and loves and hopes that accumulate over the years. Until this is understood by our politicians, the gallant efforts of so many biomedical scientists, as good as they are, will remain only stopgap measures.
The tiny cloned embryo in the petri dish may be void of memories, loves, and hopes. But then again, so are newborns. What conclusions would Dr. Gazzaniga have us draw from that?

No comments: