Cloned Embryos

Reproductive cloning is widely condemned by religious institutions and by nearly all religious scholars, but use of the cloning technique (somatic cell nuclear transfer) to create embryos for research purposes is permitted under some religious grounds while being strongly condemned under others. Catholic teaching clearly forbids any form of embryo research that destroys the embryo, cloned or otherwise. According to the Pontifical Academy for Life, "The ablation of the inner cell mass (ICM) of the blastocyst, which critically and irremediably damages the human embryo, curtailing its development, is a gravely immoral act and consequently is gravely illicit."

In similar terms, the conservative Protestant Southern Baptist Convention, at its national meeting in 1999, stated: "[we] reaffirm our vigorous opposition to the destruction of innocent human life, including the destruction of human embryos." The opposite position, however, is taken by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which declared in 2001: "With careful regulation, we affirm the use of human stem cell tissue for research that may result in the restoring of health to those suffering from serious illness. We affirm our support for stem cell research, recognizing that this research moves to a new and challenging frontier."

On this, the Presbyterian position (shared by some other similar denominations) is substantially indistinguishable from that ofJudaism. An example of the latter is found in a joint statement offered by the heads of the various branches of Judaism in the United States. This statement begins by stressing the God-given human role in mending the creation: "The Torah commands us to treat and cure the ill and to defeat disease wherever possible; to do this is to be the Creator's partner in safeguarding the created" (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Rabbinical Council of America, 2002). To this end, humans are permitted to use human embryos in research, for "our tradition states that an embryo in vitro does not enjoy the full status of human-hood and its attendant protections. Thus, if cloning technology research advances our ability to heal humans with greater success, it ought to be pursued since it does not require or encourage the destruction of life in the process" (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Rabbinical Council of America, 2002). Reproductive cloning, however, is opposed, and therefore careful oversight of research must be in place.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it appears possible to create human embryos by nuclear transfer, embryo splitting, or by a process usually called parthenogenesis by which researchers induce an egg to start dividing like an embryo without fertilization. In each of these processes, something like an embryo comes into existence without fertilization or conception in the usual sense. If an embryo strictly speaking is the result of conception, then these entities are not embryos. One cannot imagine, however, that those who hold passionately to the slogan that "life begins at conception" will not modify their rhetoric to say that life begins at conception or anything that replaces conception.

A deeper issue is whether these entities, even if implanted, have the biological potential to develop into a human life. In some cases, probably most, it will turn out that they lack this potential. If so, will they be seen as embryo-like but as sub-embryos, morally speaking? Surely, some out of religious conviction will defend their status as "one of us" or as fully human. In time, however, technology may find even more ways to create entities that function in some ways like embryos but in other ways fail as their biological equivalent, and so religious, moral, and policy distinctions are inevitable.

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