Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Ethicist Discusses ‘Slippery Slope’ Of Cloning

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 25, 2006

Imagine this: A doctor takes the nucleus from a patient’s skin cell and fuses it with an egg cell to create a human clone. Then the cloned embryo isn’t just destroyed for the harvesting of stem cells to treat the patient without risk of immune system rejection, which is called “therapeutic cloning.” Instead, the doctor implants the clone in a woman’s womb, not for “reproductive cloning,” which many oppose, but to grow a cloned fetus only to abort it and take out organs needed for transplants.

Sound far-fetched for a civil society? Father Tad Pacholczyk doesn’t think so. The priest, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale University with advanced study in dogmatic theology and bioethics in Rome, is director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. He termed this harvesting of body parts “fetal farming” in a talk he gave on stem cell research at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta this winter.

While more and more people vocally advocate for embryonic stem cell research and for therapeutic cloning, which actually involves the same process as reproductive cloning, he thinks they’re looking further down a “slippery slope.”

Therapeutic cloning has been proposed by scientists as one way to solve the problem of a patient’s immune system rejecting embryonic stem cells from histoincompatible (unmatched tissue) donors.

The next step on the slippery slope would be to clone a fetus and harvest organs, Father Pacholczyk said, because a growing fetus accomplishes what science at this point cannot. As a fetus grows, organs develop and there is no protection legally for this human life in the womb, he pointed out.

With just stem cells from a cloned embryo, “I as a scientist now have to do really hard work in figuring out how do I take this (laboratory) plate and turn it into a kidney because we all want kidneys and tissue, but we’re nowhere near being able to make a whole kidney,” he said.

On the other hand, “abortion is legal until a little before the first breath, so a little before the due date you schedule the abortion, and then you end up with not one but two kidneys that are genetically matched to the patient and ready to go for a transplant.”

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the ability to divide and multiply, and to turn into specialized cells found in the body. They are found throughout the body and serve as a repair system for tissues. Stem cells extracted from an embryo that is destroyed, which, being totipotent, have the potential to turn into any cell in the body, are not used currently to treat any disease due in part to lack of success in experiments with lab animals. A human clone embryo has not yet been made to the five- to six-day-old blastocyst stage. But cloning has already been done with animals, noted Father Pacholczyk, adding “there are scientists who are beginning to discuss this as a way to deal with the organ procurement problem. So when you hear about fetal farming, don’t be too quick to dismiss this because these slopes are well greased. If we don’t stop this biotechnology phenomenon in its evil dimensions, this may be something that ends up on our doorsteps sooner than we realize.”

In his talk entitled “Cutting Through the Spin on Stem Cells and Cloning” he explored the grave moral implications of this type of research, as well as myths about it and its lack of results. He also spoke of the many advancements in actual medical applications being made in adult (non-embryonic) stem cell research and its many facets, and how the hype over embryonic stem cell research takes focus and money away from advancing adult stem cell research.

Therapeutic cloning was an issue this year in the Georgia General Assembly. Senate Bill 596 that called for the establishment of an umbilical cord blood bank to support adult cord blood stem cell research and other measures didn’t pass, but Gov. Sonny Perdue has still called for the establishment of some of its provisions. One controversial part of the Senate bill that was later dropped was a ban on human cloning.

Nationally, several bills were introduced in Congress in 2005 to ban cloning (H.R. 1357, S. 658, S. 1373), as were others that only banned reproductive cloning—giving birth to a cloned person. And in 2005 the House of Representatives passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (H.R. 810), which would overturn President George W. Bush’s policy that limits federally funded embryonic stem cell research to stem cell lines existing as of Aug. 9, 2001, and would allow federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells derived from human embryos donated from in vitro fertilization clinics. President Bush’s ruling actually loosened a 1996 ban on funding of research involving the destruction of embryos. Currently, Senate majority leader Dr. Bill Frist is working with his colleagues to determine how to bring the issue to the floor to ensure all members are given, according to his office, “an opportunity to vote their conscience and express their position on both the scientific and ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cells and related alternatives.”

Research on embryos is far behind the progress of research on adult stem cells, as scientists were able to first isolate embryonic stem cells and multiply them in the lab only in 1998, and bone marrow adult stem cell transplants have been performed by doctors for over 35 years.

If embryonic stem cells were ever to be used for medical applications, therapeutic cloning has been proposed as one way to overcome the risk of tissue rejection by a patient’s immune system. In cloning, the patient would provide a cell whose nucleus would be sucked out and fused into an egg cell emptied of its nucleus to form an embryo with the sick person’s identical genetic material. Thus far, cloning has only had limited success in animals: “Dolly” the sheep was the first animal cloned in 1997, and several more animals have been reproductively cloned since then, almost all with defects.

Father Pacholczyk illuminated the moral dilemmas that arise with the idea of human cloning.

“If I walked into a fertility clinic in Atlanta and said please thaw one of your frozen embryos, destroy the embryo, pull out the stem cells, turn it into a tissue, put it into my body—my body is going to reject that other person’s cells, and scientists know that, so they have to come up with this other approach called therapeutic cloning. But it’s not therapeutic to the embryo,” he said. “This is a very clever, ingenious approach to creating rejection-proof cells, but I hope you also see the incredible moral toll if you create your own identical twin brother or sister for the intentional, premeditated purpose of destroying them for their stem cells, of strip-mining them for their stem cells. So this represents the worst kind of medicine imaginable.”

He emphasized that whether the twin sibling clone is born or not, it’s still the same process.

“There is really one kind of cloning done for two different reasons. Number one is to destroy the cloned embryo to harvest his or her stem cells, and reason number two is to implant the embryo to allow him or her to grow and be born and participate in the human community.”

He reasoned that therapeutic cloning is even worse than reproductive cloning because it involves making life just to extinguish it.

“That is how far down these slippery slopes we have come. What we have is vast portions of the American public and our lawmakers telling us this (therapeutic cloning) is the kind of cloning we need to safeguard with the law and this (reproductive cloning) is the kind we should be outlawing. They have come so far down the slippery slope that we put our foot on 25 years ago with in vitro fertilization that our moral reasoning is exactly backwards. That’s why those of us who are Catholic bring such an important angle to these discussions. We need to be in the public square. We need to be active participants in this discussion.”

So the church “will always be opposed to any research that requires that intentional destruction of a weaker member of the human species by a more powerful one” but “vigorously encourages and promotes research” on adult stem cells. Ongoing research reveals that adult stem cells, while generally considered less flexible in the types of tissue they can generate, can turn into more tissue types than once thought and are already being used to treat at least 97 diseases.

Father Pacholczyk also addressed how people often argue that the hundreds of thousands of “human beings” frozen in nitrogen at in vitro fertilization clinics, which will eventually be discarded, should be put to good use and used for research and for medical applications. He believes this is flawed reasoning and used this analogy: a foreign dictator has condemned everyone to die in its largest prison, so the United States sends over a SWAT team whose commander says to pull out all their organs because they’ll die anyway.

“That kind of reason has no sort of logic—the fact that these prisoners are trapped through no fault of their own, the fact that these embryos are trapped through no fault of their own, does not render them fair game for its exploitative intervention by us. … What we’re saying is somebody over there is going to do evil to these embryos and let’s jump in line ahead of them and do evil first,” he said. “The moral argument on embryonic viability does not hinge on whether the embryo is trapped in nitrogen and might one day end up being discarded.”

He showed a picture of a tiny embryo and commented on how this is the beginning of human life, regardless of one’s values and religion. He believes it’s a sin against science to deny that.

“People say, ‘How can you possibly safeguard something like that when there are already born people suffering from terrible maladies who might some day be able to be helped if we destroy them?’ The question is not whether that embryo is tiny, because it certainly is,” he said. “The question is, ‘Isn’t this exactly what a young human being is supposed to look like?’ It doesn’t depend on religion, it doesn’t depend on value systems. It doesn’t take imposing anything on anyone in understanding that you and I once looked like this, that this, you could say, is a family photo. It’s easy to lose track of our own embryonic beginnings.”

Finally, he showed the picture of a hand holding a premature baby to reflect how the strong have been entrusted to protect the most vulnerable.

“He can’t speak on his own or defend himself. So it really does depend on you and me to become the voice of those who have absolutely no voice of their own. I’m convinced that the true measure of the greatness of a society or civilization is always how it treats its weakest members,” he said. “As the Holy Father says, all human beings belong to God, who searches them and knows them and forms them and knits them together with His own hands, who gazes on them when they are tiny, helpless embryos and already sees them as the adults of tomorrow.”

“We regulate science all the time, and this area we’ve been discussing is perhaps the most important of all that we regulate because we are dealing with the genesis of our species, brothers and sisters to you and me.”