Researchers who successfully cloned human embryos in the IVF labs at George Washington University call the experiment a small scientific step. Dr. Robert Stillman says that this was “not the real thing.”
Definitions of reality apart, Dr. Stillman and Dr. Jerry Hall do confirm that they successfully cloned 48 separate embryos from an original 17. The cloned embryos were kept growing for six days, then “discarded.” Since the original 17 embryos were classified as “genetically abnormal” and “could not develop into babies,” the scientists call this a limited scientific victory. And, hey say, they are asking for guidelines before they attempt “the real thing.”
The purpose of such cloning experiments is explained by Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.
“The initial goal of embryo cloning was fairly straightforward: to assist infertile couples by finding a less risky way for the woman to have a bay through in-vitro fertilization,” Mr. Schafer wrote in the Globe and Mail.
“IVF works best when several embryos are reimplanted in the patient, increasing the chances that she will become pregnant. Cloning would be a safe way to obtain the extra embryos without forcing the woman to take powerful drugs that induce super-ovulation – as many as 10 to 12 eggs at a time – and to undergo repeated surgery to collect them.”
Cloning, therefore, could produce a large number of “spare” embryos which could be frozen for later use. The cloned embryos could be used for subsequent attempts by the genetic mother, or donated to another infertile woman, or used for embryo experimentation, of stored in a tissue bank.
It is suggested that the clone could be frozen in case the child born needed an organ transplant, in which case, the mother could give birth to the cloned embryo for a genetically-matched source of transplant material. Another possibility is that the frozen embryo could act as a kind of “insurance against the death of the born child.
Arthur Schafer suggests that “a baby girl, is born via IVF, grows up, is implanted with a clone of her own embryo and proceeds to become the mother of her twin sister.”
He does not think that Canadian society has to worry much about mothers becoming interested “in the added expense and dubious morality of cloning organ-reserve twins on the off chance that their babies develop problems.”
A more likely possibility in Mr. Schafer’s view is for embryo cloning “to secure fetal brain tissue, which shows great promise in the treatment of Parkinson’s and other hereditary diseases. At present there is an adequate supply of tissue derived from therapeutic abortions, but demand may soon skyrocket because of research showing that the technique may be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease.”
Gail Quinn, director of the U.S. Bishop’s Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, denounced such cloning experiments as not “a worthy way to bring a human being into the world.”
“These technologies should prompt us once again to appreciate a basic truth: the fact that it is technically possible to do something doesn’t mean it ought to be done,” said Mrs. Quinn.
Also critical of the experiment was Dr. Jerome Lejeune, the respected scientist who first identified the gene that causes Down’s Syndrome. Dr. Lejeune said such experiments should not be called cloning. “Cloning is used when you reproduce beings by bypassing the sexual reproductive system,” he said.
He pointed out that animal researchers have generally abandoned experiments in artificial twinning, since the failure rate is so high. He criticized the idea that a twin could be frozen for future use as spare parts. “It’s a totally inhumane way of thinking about your brother,” Dr. Lejeune said.
Asked by a CNS reporter in Washington whether there was a simple rule that scientists could use to decide whether certain research would benefit society, Dr. Lejeune said there is “one guideline, only one by which to judge everything.”
“And that is: ‘What you have done to the smallest of mine, you have done to me.’ Nothing more, nothing less.”