by William Cutrer, MD, and Sandra Glahn, ThM
First we had Dolly the sheep; then there was Dotcom the pig. Now we have a whole barnyard of clones. What’s next? A human being?
Clonaid says yes. It was probably a hoax, but other companies are seeking to do the same thing.
Has technology gone too far? To enter this discussion, we need to define a few terms. Two different processes have been described as “cloning” and we need to differentiate between them.
Cloning by Fission—This is the embryo “splitting” technique, or “artificial twinning.” When a fertilized egg begins to divide, every cell has totipotency—that is, any one of the cells in the embryo has the potential to develop into an entirely new individual.
When a split happens naturally at this stage, you get identical twins. This can be done and is being done in the laboratory now with humans. Solid Christian thinkers differ on whether they believe this violates the sanctity of life. Henceforth, we will call this “twinning,” not cloning. The development of such totipotent embryos carries with it both risks and benefits. Is the goal to replace people or body parts? Is it simply to have another child?
Cloning by Fusion— Start by taking the chromosomes from a non-germ cell. (A non-germ cell could be any of the 210 kinds of cells from an adult such as skin, hair, or blood.) Insert them into an egg (ovum) that has had the nucleus removed, and voila! You have a developing egg with all the chromosomes coming from another cell. All the “switches” that had been “turned off,” making it a specialized nucleus—such as a skin cell—suddenly got “turned back on” causing the reactivation of all the potential locked in the DNA.
How does this work? Well, take your Aunt Betty, for example. If we scratched a cell off the tip of her nose and inserted the nucleus into her egg, then transfer it to her own uterus, so could give birth to her own identical twin!
Using this process to clone adult cells (skin, hair) for medical treatment carries with it the possibility of growing skin for burn victims, liver cells to treat liver failure, and perhaps neural cells to combat diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The resulting technology might even allow patients such as Christopher Reeve to walk again.
Yet this cloning by fusion has some problems. First, it took 377 attempts to clone one Dolly the sheep (who lived six years before being euthanized on Valentine’s Day, 2003). To clone humans, scientists lose an enormous number of human embryos in the process.
Second, while we favor cloning adult cells (skin, hair, liver, neural) for medical treatment, cloning by fusion, when it involves embryo cells, creates a “dominion problem.” In Genesis 1:28-29 we read this:
“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
“Living creature” here refers to the plant, fish, and animal kingdoms, not other humans. When we overstep our God-given areas of dominion and begin taking human life—even at the one-cell stage—we violate the sanctity of life, autonomy, and other key ethical principles.
Those supporting fission (twinning) but not fusion (cloning) must carefully differentiate between the two, so researchers understand clearly what we support and oppose.
The plant and animal kingdoms appear to fall within our boundaries of “dominion.” We experiment on mice and plants, but not humans. So while cloning critters may seem a little bizarre, there’s nothing within most ethical systems that screams “violation” when scientists do so to help develop healthier, more disease-resistant plants or animals. Yet for those who believe human life is precious, even at the one-cell stage, the problem comes when researchers apply some areas of this science to human embryos.