Cloning and inheritable genetic alterations can be seen as crimes against humanity of a unique sort ...

... they are techniques that can alter the essence of humanity itself.”

Life-Size Model of 10-Week-Old FetusCredit: Bill Davenport, Kentville, Canada
Life-size model of a 10-week-old fetus

The unequivocal stance of “Protecting the Endangered Human,” a paper authored by three leading academics and published in the American Journal of Law & Medicine, illustrates the strength of feeling that was evident at the height of the cloning debate in 2002.

Unsurprisingly, the opposing view is equally strident:

“Human evolution would progress best if roughly half of all births were the result of cloning.”

So suggests a 2003 paper published by the Journal of Evolution and Technology. The often-held view that cloning reduces genetic diversity is unfounded, claims author Dr. William Bainbridge, citing the principles of evolution as justification for his view. Since, by definition, natural selection reduces gene-pool diversity, “allowing some individuals to reproduce by cloning would restore lost selectivity,” he argues.

Whether or not either theory holds water, human cloning still has opponents on all sides of the divide. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order lifting the Bush administration’s ban on federally funded stem-cell research. By doing so, he raised the lid on a can of writhing, opinionated worms that became immediately incandescent with rage at having the comfort of their status quo disturbed.

Undeterred by Obama’s assurance that his government would retain an indefinite ban on human cloning for reproductive purposes, his opponents accused him of “stepping on to a very steep, very slippery slope.” The National Right to Life Committee claimed that “many researchers will never be satisfied only with the so-called leftover embryos,” and there remains a significant body of opinion vehemently opposed to human cloning in any form.

Human cloning divides opinion with an incisiveness that few other issues can match. The undecided and those with no opinion are few and far between. Cloning arguments typically find themselves on one of three battlefields: the religious, the political or the scientific arena. Any or all of the protagonists may claim the moral high ground in the debate, but in truth, it is rare to find an opinion that is purely based on ethics – there is usually more at stake.

Human Ovarian FollicleCredit: Human Ovarian FollicleThe essence of cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer, is the removal of the nucleus from an unfertilized egg cell followed by its replacement with equivalent material from a donor cell. Stimulating the modified egg cell initiates mitosis, or cell division, and the result is an embryo with, arguably, the potential for life. Therapeutic cloning utilizes the early-stage embryo for research, while reproductive cloning proceeds to implantation, pregnancy and birth.

Few things galvanize people of almost all faiths more effectively than the prospect of legalized human cloning, although a unanimous viewpoint still seems unachievable. Religious opposition springs from many quarters, asserting vigorously that cloning is, inter alia, “against God’s law,” unnatural” and “an affront to human dignity.” Faced with the inconvenient but irrefutable argument that “God approves of human cloning because He created identical twins,” an alternative defense holds that “man does not have the right to assume God’s responsibilities.”

Man may not be ready to play God, but the evidence suggests that He doesn’t always get it right Himself. Two studies from 2005 and 2008, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Journal of Human Genetics, respectively, concluded that monozygotic, or identical, twins display not only developmental differences but also underlying variations in genetic structure. So much for infallibility.

Identical Twin GirlsCredit: Emmanuel Garcia, PhilippinesPoliticians have little hope of occupying the moral high ground – or any other type of high ground – as their dependency on the voting public to remain in office often overrides all other considerations. Obama twisted this particular knife in his address prior to signing the 2009 order, when he declared that “supporting science … is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda,” a clear reference to the driving force behind the Bush administration’s machinations on cloning.

Maybe the scientists will have the final word – after all, cloning is for the benefit of mankind, many would argue. Yet, the scientific world tears itself apart with conflicting views from all directions, vitriolic arguments between respected members of the community and – tellingly – attacks on every other sector with an interest in the outcome. Nestor Micheli Morales of the City University of New York sums it up less-than-succinctly in a 2009 essay published by the ever-vigilant Journal of Evolution and Technology:

“Society, culture, ideology, forms of government, and the manipulation of the mass media are more a threat to the uniqueness of a human being than human cloning.”

R.C. Lewontin, socialist critic and author of “The Confusion Over Cloning” couldn’t have put it better. Chew on that, all you self-proclaimed experts!