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Cloning: Ethical Issues - The Cloning Ban

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Ethical concerns about whether an action is "right" or "wrong" are often clouded by subjectivity, emotion, and perspective. Cloning members of an endangered species, for example, is generally regarded as a positive application of the technology, whereas attempting to clone an extinct woolly mammoth from preserved tissue elicits more negative responses, including that this interferes with nature. A project at Texas A&M University, funded by a dog lover wishing to clone a beloved deceased pet, announced the first successful cloning of a domestic animal, a cat, in February 2002. Cloning pets when strays crowd shelters might be seen as unethical. A different set of ethical issues emerges when considering the cloning of humans, which a few scientists and physicians have proposed doing outside of the United States.

The first cloned cat, named "cc," (short for "copycat") is proudly displayed by doctors Mark Westhusin (right) and Tae Young (left) of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University on Febuary 8, 2002.

Bioethics is concerned with the rights of individuals, such as the right to privacy and the right to make informed medical decisions. It is difficult to see how these issues would apply to cloning, unless someone was forced or paid to provide material for the procedure, or if an individual was cloned and not informed of his or her origin. Ethical objections to cloning seem to focus more on the fact that this is not a normal way to have a baby. Accordingly, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on July 31, 2001 to pass legislation that would outlaw human cloning for any reason. However, the broadness of this action may impede other types of medical research, thus introducing a different bioethical dilemma.

The legislation seeks to ban all human cloning, both "reproductive cloning" that would be used to create a baby, and "therapeutic cloning." In therapeutic cloning, a nucleus from a somatic cell is transferred to an enucleated donor egg, and an embryo is allowed to develop for a few days. Then, cells from a part of the embryo called the inner cell mass are used to establish cultures of embryonic stem cells that are genetically identical to the individual who donated the somatic cell nucleus.

If this person has a spinal cord injury or a neurodegenerative disease, the embryonic stem cells might specialize into needed neural tissue. To treat muscular dystrophy, the cells might be coaxed to differentiate into muscle-cell precursors. Such tailored embryonic stem cells would have many applications, and a person's immune system would not reject what is essentially its own tissue. Some people argue that therapeutic cloning violates the rights of early-stage embryos; others argue that banning this research violates the rights of people who might benefit from embryonic stem cell therapy.

According to the bill's ban on producing or selling "any embryo produced by human cloning," scientists caught in the act could expect a fine of up to $1 million or ten years in prison. Proposals to exempt therapeutic cloning were defeated. The criminalization of basic research is unprecedented: Before 2001, bans on using embryonic stem cells applied only to federally funded research, and work using a small number of previously existing stem cell lines was permitted. Since the 2001 ruling, some researchers have moved to nations that permit them to derive new embryonic stem cell lines. Stem cells that are normal parts of adult bodies are being investigated as alternative sources of replacement tissues.

Cloning: Ethical Issues - Cloning Misconceptions [next] [back] Cloning: Ethical Issues - Cloning In Context

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