Nearly two decades have passed since the birth of Dolly the sheep, a clone manufactured through a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). Since that time, the prospect of human cloning has been eagerly—or fearfully anticipated—throughout the world. Indeed, in 2004, Korean scientist Huang wu-Suk became generated world headlines when he claimed to have created the first human cloned embryos and derived embryonic stem cells from them.
It later turned out that he had done no such thing. Huang was a charlatan. But now, the very deed that briefly made him the world’s most famous scientist has actually been accomplished, and you can hear the crickets chirping.
Why the striking difference in attention paid to an epochal story? When Huang claimed to have successfully cloned human beings, it set off a political firestorm, with human cloning proponents and opponents debating hotly over how and whether to regulate human cloning, or even—as I advocate—to ban it altogether.
Wanting to prevent another public brouhaha, the scientists who actually did do human cloning—and the Science Establishment—generally avoided using the C-word in the popular media—instead claiming merely that stem cells were obtained from “unfertilized eggs.” Thus, the Wall Street Journal reported:
Scientists have used cloning technology to transform human skin cells into embryonic stem cells, an experiment that may revive the controversy over human cloning. The researchers stopped well short of creating a human clone. But they showed, for the first time, that it is possible to create cloned embryonic stem cells that are genetically identical to the person from whom they are derived.
That description missed an essential—and morally crucial—element: SCNT does not create stem cells, it manufactures a human embryo via asexual reproduction, from which stem cells can be derived just as with a fertilized embryo.
To better understand what is going on, let’s take a brief look at how SCNT is accomplished:
- First, take a skin or other cell (Dolly came from a mammary gland cell, hence her naming as something of a joke after Dolly Parton);
- Remove the cell’s nucleus;
- Next take an egg and remove its nucleus;
- Place the skin cell nucleus where the egg nucleus used to be;
- Stimulate with an electric current or other means;
- If the cloning works, the properties of the egg transform into a one-celled embryo just as occurs after fertilization.
Once the embryo arises, the cloning is over. If all goes well, the embryo will develop like a natural embryo.
The next question involves what to do with the living human life that was created. If the nascent human being is to be destroyed for experimentation—as in this experiment—the process is often called therapeutic cloning. If the intent is to implant in a womb and bring a child to birth, it is often called “reproductive cloning.” Either way, the actual cloning process is the same.
Indeed, when the scientists talked to each other in the science journals, they were far more candid about what had been done. Thus, in the paper published in Cell, in which the scientists announced their cloning breakthrough, they acknowledge to having created “SCNT embryos” From the study (my emphasis):
Activation of embryonic genes and transcription from the transplanted somatic cell nucleus are required for development of SCNT embryos beyond the eight-cell stage. Therefore, these results are consistent with the premise that our modified SCNT protocol supports reprogramming of human somatic cells to the embryonic state.
Why is this important morally? Scientists have manufactured human life. In a sense, it is reproduction by replication—creating a new human being designed to have a specific genetic makeup in the mirror image of the person cloned. Even if the technique remains limited for use in seeking biological knowledge and searching for potential medical treatments, those beneficent ends will come at the very high ethical price of manufacturing human life for the purpose of destroying and harvesting it like a corn crop.
But it won’t end there. Human cloning is the essential technology to developing potential Brave New World technologies, such genetic engineering, creating human/animal chimeras, gestating cloned fetuses in artificial wombs as a means of obtaining patient-compatible organs, and eventually, the birth of cloned babies. (We have already seen advocacy for such fetal farming among a few bioethicists, and experiments have already been conducted on late term aborted female fetuses to determine whether their ovaries can be harvested to obtain eggs for use in research.
Not only that, but human cloning heightens the risk that vulnerable women will be exploited for their eggs—the essential ingredient in SCNT—one egg per cloning attempt. Thus, it isn’t surprising that as the rumors about successful human cloning were swirling through the science community, a bill was introduced in the California Legislature—A.B. 926—that would permit universities and their biotech partners to pay women for eggs to be used in scientific research.
As the CBC documentary Eggsploitation vividly demonstrates, supplying eggs can be dangerous to the woman’s health and fecundity.
This is the bottom line: Human cloning has been accomplished. We will either deal with it, or it will deal with us.
Wesley J. Smith is a special consultant to the CBC. He is also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.