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“The Genie is Out of the Bottle”

From the Inside the Vatican, May, 2001

By John Mallon

It is widely conceded that a human being will be cloned in the very near future, but it is also widely held that a human being should not be cloned. Strictly speaking, a human being has already been cloned. In November of 1998 American Cell Technology (ACT), a private biotechnology company in Worcester, Massachusetts, cloned a human embryo using a cell from a man's leg and a cow's egg. The resulting human embryo was allowed to develop for twelve days before it was destroyed. In a normal pregnancy an embryo implants into the womb wall after 14 days. 

This again opens up the feverish debate of when life begins. During the debate over so-called “emergency contraception” at the Beijing+5 conference at the United Nations last year, proponents were claiming scientific findings that pregnancy begins at implantation. Pro-family lobbyists saw this claim as a verbal sleight-of-hand to trick the untrained ear over the fact that life begins at conception, as the Catholic Church teaches. 

So, the news of ACT’s achievement was revealed several months after the fact in news report on June 17, 1999. According to a BBC report at the time, “Dr. Robert Lanza, ACT’s director of tissue engineering, told The Daily Mail newspaper that the embryo cannot be seen as a person before 14 days. The company says they have released news of the discovery to try to allay fears over the artificial conception of life.” The BBC continues that it is believed that many more human embryos have been created and destroyed since November. Then it was announced that stem cells had been cloned, not that embryos had been allowed to develop.” 

ACT hastens to add that they “have no intention of attempting to use a cloned human embryo to start a pregnancy—their aim is ‘therapeutic cloning’ not ‘reproductive cloning’ ” the BBC reports, thus delineating an important distinction and an ethical boundary for ACT. 

Lord Robert Winston, a British fertility expert, and pioneer of in vitro fertilization, is quoted as calling this research “totally ethical.” Apparently the ethics of therapeutic cloning rests on the belief that a human embryo before implantation does not meet criteria for personhood and is fair game. England has lifted restrictions to allow limited research for this kind of therapeutic cloning.

The BBC reports that opponents of cloning say the development of the technology makes the eventual birth of a human clone inevitable.

In the same report the BBC quotes a Dr. Maisam Mitalipova, a pioneer of human-cow cloning method, as giving The Daily Mail this revealing quote: “We didn’t get good quality embryos and so they may not get good quality stem cells.” Unwittingly, perhaps, this quote, in using term “good quality” in reference to a human embryo, Mitalipova has let slip an attitude that views these human beings as a product. 

In the eyes of the Church a growing embryo with the complete 46 chromosomes is a living being and is certainly human, and moving toward its telos, or natural end, that is, development, birth, and a lifetime until natural death. How does one measure the “quality” of a human being? Further, there is, in this quote, more that a touch of utilitarianism, indicating that these human embryos, lives, are produced for a different telos, or end, than God intended for human beings, namely, the production of stem cells to be taken and used by others. In other words, harvesting human beings for cellular matter.

So, after an initial announcement in January of this year, the inevitable announcement was formally discussed at a March 9 conference sponsored by Rome’s University La Sapienza in Rome and the Italian Society for Reproductive Medicine, where Professor Panayotis Zavos, an American scientist who joined Italian Professor Servino Antinori made clear their intention to clone the first human baby. 

The March 11 Australian newspaper, The Sun-Herald, carried the headline, “Human clones move sparks global outrage.” The Sun-Herald was not alone. A flood of stories from many other global outlets, referred to the meeting in alarming terms. 

According to The Washington Post, when Zavos announced in January that he and Antinori would collaborate on a human cloning project, he said this month’s meeting in Rome would include cloning experts from around the world as well as a Roman Catholic cardinal to discuss ethical concerns. “There will be Japanese, Koreans, Orientals, Greeks, Italians and some elite members from the Middle East Medical Society,” he said.

But the program for the meeting indicates a significantly scaled-back affair. No cardinal is scheduled to appear. And several experts in the United States said that of the five speakers other than Antinori and Zavos, the only one whose name they recognized was that of Karl Illmensee, an Austrian who in 1979 claimed to have cloned several mice. The secretive work, which no other researcher was able to replicate, was ultimately discredited.

The Sun-Herald said Antinori and Zavos claimed they had refined their pool of candidate couples for the project. Professor Antinori told the conference: “Cloning may be considered the last frontier to overcome male sterility.” Professor Zavos said: “We do intend to clone the first human. This is a solution to a human problem.” The human problem they seek to remedy, and therefore the ostensible purpose of the project, is a solution to infertility. The newspaper reports Zavos ruling out using the technology to try clone dead children or famous people. The idea was to help men who had no sperm to have genetically related children without relying on a sperm donor. “If you’re one of those males that face this particular difficulty, you think: ‘God why me? Why do I have to borrow sperm to get a child?’” he said. 

Reuters said since the initial announcement in January, Zavos claimed he and Antinori had between 600 and 700 couples seeking their services. 

Zavos deflected mounting criticism of his plans, saying people would eventually get over opposition to human cloning.

“Historically this is normal but once the first baby is born and it cries, the world will embrace it,’’ he said. “Now that we have crossed into the third millennium, we have the technology to break the rules of nature.”

From a Catholic point of view one problem may lie in the use of the word “get.” In the Catholic view a child is to be conceived in the larger context of the self-donation of love within marriage. The danger in the modern world is a view which tends to see children as accessories along the path of self-fulfillment. Furthermore, the child produced from a cloned embryo would not be a true genetic blending of husband and wife. In this case, the male would be supplying the all the genes, with no genetic input from the woman. The woman’s role would essentially be doing the “work” of carrying the child to term, should the cloned child survive that long. 

The man, then, gazing into his child’s eyes, would not see the fruit of his shared love with his wife, but rather seeing a genetic carbon copy of himself. Genetically speaking, the child would not be his son, but his twin brother. The true genetic parents of the child would be the child’s paternal grandparents. The warmth of a man looking into his child’s eyes and seeing the love between he and his beloved, but a potentially narcissistic mirror image of himself at a younger age. 

Once again we see how Church teachings support the most beautiful and deepest instincts, aspirations, even romantic dreams and longings of the human heart.

The Sun-Herald reports that later Zavos revealed that the first experiments to lay the groundwork for the cloning project could begin within weeks, with the first cloned embryo ready for implantation in a human womb within one to two years.

Some of the most strenuous objections to the project have come from those involved in therapeutic cloning research. For example, Lord Winston, who approved of ACT’s research, flew to Rome to confront Antinori accusing him of disreputable and irresponsible conduct, dismissing Antinori’s latest announcement a publicity stunt. The Sun-Herald quotes him: “We are giving him more credibility than he deserves. I don’t think he has any serious intentions and he certainly has not got the skill. This is an advertising campaign for his fertility services."

According to the report, Dr. Harry Griffin of the Roslin Institute where Dolly the sheep was cloned, said that cloning animals was a hit-and-miss affair, so that to press ahead with humans would be “criminally irresponsible.” Dr. Rudolph Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge Massachusetts, said, “Serious problems have happened in all five species cloned so far, and all have been mammals, so of course it’s going to happen in humans. No question. You dispose of these animals, but tell me—what do you do with abnormal humans? It’s an outrageous criminal enterprise to even attempt it."

So what dangers have researchers encountered? 

CNN and Reuters reported March 9 that Dr. Ian Wilmut who cloned Dolly said it took 277 tries to get it right. Other cloning attempts have ended in malformed animals and experts say the technique fails in 97 percent of cases.

Rick Weiss, a staff writer for The Washington Post reported on March 7, a story of a bull, naturally resistant to three bovine diseases of whom a herd of clones would be invaluable. When the first of those clones was just a month away from being born, Weiss reports, the mother had mysteriously become swollen with fluid. The veterinarian of Texas A&M University, Mark Westhusin, who oversaw the 1999 effort said, “She got so big in the end that she aborted, and we lost the calf at eight months. That cow looked like she swallowed a 55-gallon barrel of water.”

The Post says that “Westhusin has grow accustom to such failures. He and other leading animal cloners know that behind the stunning stories of successes in cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and mice, 95 percent to 97 percent of efforts still end in disaster.”

In other cases, said Jon Hill, a veterinary reproductive physiologist at Cornell University and a leading expert in animal cloning. “the mom can get so big they can tear the muscles in their belly wall.”

No test today is capable of determining whether a cloned embryo’s genes are properly imprinted, so it’s impossible to weed out embryos that are doomed to develop abnormally.

Vatican Responds

Reuters said the Vatican has called the plan “grotesque” and that Bishop Elio Sgreggia, head of the John Paul II Institute for Bioethics at Rome’s Gemmelli hospital, said human cloning raised profoundly disturbing ethical issues. He told Reuters Television, “Those who made the atomic bomb went ahead in spite of knowing about its terrible destruction, but this doesn’t mean it was the best choice for humanity.” He continued, “The forecasts (about human cloning) sadden us but don’t scare us.” He added that it would be a betrayal if the Roman Catholic Church’s voice were not heard.

Father Gino Concetti, a moral theologian whose views are thought to reflect those of Pope John Paul, reiterated the Vatican’s stance.

"These proposals contradict the truth of mankind, man’s dignity, man’s rights ... especially the right to be conceived in the human way,’’ Concetti told Reuters.

Pope John Paul II himself condemned human cloning when speaking to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society in Rome on August 29, 2000. He said, “...methods that fail to respect the dignity and value of the person must always be avoided. I am thinking in particular of attempts at human cloning with a view to obtaining organs for transplants: these techniques, insofar as they involve the manipulation and destruction of human embryos, are not morally acceptable, even when their proposed goal is good in itself. Science itself points to other forms of therapeutic intervention which would not involve cloning or the use of embryonic cells, but rather would make use of stem cells taken from adults. This is the direction that research must follow if it wishes to respect the dignity of each and every human being, even at the embryonic stage.” (No. 8)

The Church, which has already condemned in-vitro fertilization naturally continues this logic of defending the dignity of human life from conception—not merely implantation—by condemning cloning, either in its therapeutic or reproductive forms, as out of keeping with the dignity of the human person who, even in the embryonic stage remains unique and unrepeatable, and an end in him or herself, not a means to an end subject to the manipulation of others even for a supposed “good.” Destruction of human embryos who don’t meet “quality control” standards involves the termination of sovereign, innocent human lives and as such constitutes an intrinsic evil, and as such, is forbidden for any reason.

But once again the Church must prepare herself to heal and evangelize as she has done in the face of other widely accepted intrinsically evil acts like contraception, abortion, and in vitro fertilization. Cloning is but one more link in the chain dragging down the slippery slope in the culture of death. Because as Professor Zavos says, “The genie is out of the bottle.”