On November 25 Advanced Cell Technologies announced the creation of the first cloned human embryo. The company described its achievement as a crucial step in therapeutic cloning research, which aims at cloning new organs to replace damaged ones. Like healthy new skin for fire victims; or strong new bones for osteoporosis patients; or new retinas for blind people; or new spinal cords for paraplegics.
Amazingly, not everybody wants therapeutic cloning to succeed. Two hundred and sixty two members of the House of Representatives, for example, voted earlier this year to outlaw its practice. Our Congressmen set a punishment of up to ten years in jail for researchers and doctors who may dare clone a human cell in pursuit of medical cures.
What is their reason for banning therapeutic cloning? Aren’t they aware of the life-saving potential of this technology?
Oh, they are. The possible benefits of therapeutic cloning are undisputed even by its fiercest opponents. The reason most of them oppose therapeutic cloning is because it involves the manipulation and death of young human embryos, which they regard as akin to the manipulation and death of human beings.
But a human embryo is not a human being.
This can be literally seen just by looking at a human embryo, like the one that appeared in the December 2001 issue of Scientific American. If you get hold of a copy, you will see that the young embryo is smaller than the pin of a needle–just about the size of a grain of sand. You will also see that the embryo is not some sort of miniature human being, but merely a bundle of a dozen round cells stuck together. The bundle has no legs, no arms, no torso, no neck and no head. It has no body. It has no human form. Once you see a young embryo as it is–a microscopic lump of cells–it becomes self-evident that it is not a human being at all.
The false premise that a human embryo is a human being comes up in the cloning debate in different guises, the most common being the assertion that “life begins at conception.” Often spoken like a mantra, it appears to have a calming effect on the speaker, settling the issue in his mind. But if one would stop to think about it, one would realize that the life that begins at conception is not the life of a human being, but the life of an embryo. In retrospect you may say that your life began at your conception, but at that time there was no you.
“Ok,” some may concede, “the young embryo is not a human being. But it has the potential to become a human being. Shouldn’t it then have the same right to life as a human being has?”
No. While it is true that a human embryo may have the potential to become a human being, as long as it is an embryo, it is not yet a human being. A human embryo is not a human being in the same way that a seed is not a tree, and that an egg is not a chicken. Things are what they are–not what they may come to be.
Not all opponents of therapeutic cloning, however, regard the status of the embryo as the central issue in this debate. Some oppose the technology because they fear it would eventually lead to cloning people. But even if they are right, it would be insane to ban therapeutic cloning, which may save countless lives, just because some people may decide to have babies that look like themselves.
In addressing the issue of cloning, President Bush was absolutely right that “The moral issues posed by human cloning are profound and have implications for today and for future generations.” The president was also right that “We must advance the promise and cause of science, but must do so in a way that honors and respects life.”
Therapeutic cloning honors and respects life–human life. And any person who has true respect for human beings should think this issue through and stop advocating respect for human embryos.
Those who fall into the trap of equivocating between a human being and an embryo will end up sacrificing real human beings for microscopic clusters of cells. Embryos are not people, and treating them as if they were will end up costing human lives. One day, maybe not too far off in the future, you or someone you love may need a new heart or lung or liver to survive. If therapeutic cloning is banned, there will be no hope for you–or them.
Soon the Senate and the President will decide if the House of Representatives’ ban on therapeutic cloning will stand. The choice they will face is clear: cloning and life, or prohibition and death. Let’s make sure they pick the right one.