9 Things You Should Know About Human Cloning

Earlier this week scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University reported they had produced embryonic stem cells from a cloned human embryo. Here are 9 things you should know about human cloning:

1. Cloning is a form of reproduction in which offspring result not from the chance union of egg and sperm (sexual reproduction) but from the deliberate replication of the genetic makeup of another single individual (asexual reproduction). Human cloning, therefore, is the asexual production of a new human organism that is, at all stages of human development, genetically virtually identical to a currently existing or previously existing human being.

2. Human cloning is achieved by a technique referred to as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The process involves introducing material from the nucleus of a human somatic cell (any biological cell forming the body of an organism, though for the purposes of SCNT, usually a skin cell) into an oocyte (a female egg cell that has not yet gone through the process to become an ovum) whose own nucleus has been removed or inactivated. The oocyte becomes an ovum that now no longer needs to be fertilized, because it contains the correct amount of genetic material. This new entity begins dividing and growing, yielding a cloned human embryo.

3. Cloning does not produce an exact genetic replica of the donor (the person the genetic material was taken from to produce the cloned embryo). All human cells, including eggs and sperm, contain small, energy-producing organelles called mitochondria. Mitochondria contain a small piece of DNA that specifies the genetic instructions for making several essential mitochondrial proteins. SCNT transfers the nucleus into the oocyte which contains mitochondrial DNA of the egg donor. Just as in sexual reproduction, the embryo produced by cloning contains genetic material from two different individuals.

4. Due to missing, but crucial interactions between the sperm and egg, genetic reprogramming errors’ are inherent to cloning. This leads to random, widespread genetic ‘imprinting’ and ‘epigenetic’ defects that are both known causes of cancer. In addition to the ‘epigenetic’ defects, cells derived from cloning that are injected back into the donor are rejected because of epigenetic mis-expression, genetic differences due to mitochondrial DNA, and the incompatibility of cells too immature in development to interact with adult tissue environments. This is the major stumbling block for using material from cloned embryos for the treatment of diseases.

5. The use of the terms therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning are misleading. All cloning produces a human embryo and is therefore reproductive in nature. The more accurate, neutral phrasing is cloning-to-produce-children and cloning-for-biomedical-research. These terms make a distinction between cloning that results in the creation of an embryo for subsequent destruction and one that is created in order to continue the normal process of human development.

6. The primary moral objection to cloning for research is that it creates human life solely for the purpose of destroying it; using a human embryo merely as a means to an end. In order to justify the killing of these human beings for their “spare parts”, we have to ignore the scientific understanding what makes a member of the human species and argue on the metaphysical definition of what constitutes personhood.’ While it is true that many people oppose the cloning of human embryos for valid religious and ethical reasons, the issue is not divided along the typical left/right political spectrum. Even pro-choice advocates and others who hold secular and/or progressive political views find sufficient ethical concerns for opposing the procedure. Daniel Sulmasy, a professor of medicine and a bioethicist at the University of Chicago, told National Public Radio (NPR), “This is a case in which one is deliberately setting out to create a human being for the sole purpose of destroying that human being. I’m of the school that thinks that that’s morally wrong no matter how much good could come of it.”

7. Currently, the primary justification for therapeutic cloning is as a means of harvesting embryonic stem cells—a process that ends a human life—for research purposes. Despite years of media hype and billions of dollars dedicated to the venture, embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) has never produced any clinically proven therapies—and likely never will. As the Washington Post wrote earlier this week, “few experts think that production of stem cells through cloning is likely to be medically useful soon, or possibly ever.” ESCR has been one of the most expensive boondoggles in biomedical history.

8. Cloning not only compounds the ethical concerns of ESCR but adds a significant number of other moral problems. This Machiavellian approach would be difficult to justify even if ESCR were to lead to miraculous cures. But research using harvested embryonic stem cells appears to be an unnecessarily speculative undertaking and a waste of money, life, and medical research. The use of adult stem cells, however, has none of the ethical problems and far fewer of the biomedical complications of ESCR. In fact, more than 70 types of therapies have been developed using adult stem cells.

9. As the President’s Council on Bioethics explained in 2005,

The prospect of cloning-to-produce-children, which would be a radically new form of procreation, raises deep concerns about identity and individuality, the meaning of having children, the difference between procreation and manufacture, and the relationship between the generations. Cloning-for-biomedical-research also raises new questions about the manipulation of some human beings for the benefit of others, the freedom and value of biomedical inquiry, our obligation to heal the sick (and its limits), and the respect and protection owed to nascent human life. Moreover, the legislative debates over human cloning raise questions about the relationship between science and society, especially about whether society can or should exercise ethical and prudential control over biomedical technology and the conduct of biomedical research. Rarely has such a seemingly small innovation raised such large questions.

(Although the studies on cloning and ESCR produced by the President’s Council on Bioethics were once available at Bioethics.gov, the Obama administration has removed all the work produced by the previous council.)


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9 Things You Should Know About Mothers and Mother’s Day

9 Things You Should Know About Pornography and the Brain

9 Things You Should Know About Planned Parenthood

9 Things You Should Know About the Boston Marathon Bombing

9 Things You Should Know About Female Body Image Issues

9 Things You Should Know About the Gosnell Infanticide and Murder Trial

9 Things You Should Know About Edith Schaeffer

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  • facedown2000

    What is your response to the recent use of hESC to treat macular degeneration:

    Schwartz, et. al. (2012) The Lancet. 379: 713-20.

    • Joe Carter

      I think that study shows how desperate ESCR researchers are to claim any sort of therapy.

      The trial consisted of two women and the improvement is speculative at best. One may have only been due to the placebo effect (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/24/business/stem-cell-study-may-show-advance.html?_r=0).

      The fact that the test trial consisted of only two women, no control group, and the results were rushed into publication shows that ESR researchers are willing to lower the bar in order to justify wasting money on the research. As the NYT article notes, “Advanced Cell Technology, which paid for the study, has been criticized in the past for overstating results, in part because it has been desperate to raise money to stay in business.”

  • Ryan Over

    Thank you for taking some time to communicate some important aspects of cloning to the non-scientist community. As a graduate student in Biochemistry, I recently gave a lecture on cloning (not to address the ethics, but) to teach understanding life using the concepts learned in biology. Cloning, which is essentially like mitosis, is very strange for animals. However, plants and other creatures can achieve this routinely (the common practice of cutting off part of a tree to grow a clone).

    For some additional perspective, I would add that SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) is currently used in the livestock industry alongside ivf and meat from cloned animals is on the market (http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/SafetyHealth/AnimalCloning/ucm055516.htm). That being said, every scientist that I’ve come across while preparing my lecture said that they had no intention of pursuing human cloning. I’m glad the above feat was a very difficult thing to achieve, because I sincerely hope that I never see the day where it can be done outside a well funded, state of the art lab.

  • Paul Lim

    Thank you for this very helpful article. I’m a physician and found your points very clear and accurate for this esoteric subject which is so critical for the church to understand. I haven’t read that Lancet article (re macular degeneration) yet, but it’s very unusual for such a renowned journal to publish 1) an industry funded study (because it’s implicitly biased financially) and 2) a study with so few subjects. A two patient “series” would be considered at best a “case study” type article which might be published in a non-peer reviewed journal (what we in medicine call a “throw away journal”). Either one of these qualities would typically cause the Lancet editors to reject a manuscript on scientific grounds, unless, of course, there’s a non-scientific agenda such as promoting hESC. The editors are apparently so blinded by their agenda that they are willing to sacrifice the scientific integrity of their renowned journal. This probably will be another failure in the history of hESC derived therapies.

    However, even if some effective therapy is developed using hESC, it is clearly morally reprehensible–murdering a vulnerable human being for the benefit of a more powerful one. This is the moral equivalent of harvesting organs from executed prisoners as is routinely done in China. Though some may say, “Well, why waste the organs of a prisoner convicted of a capital crime?” The problem is that whatever “crime” only becomes a capital offense when the prisoner is found to be a favorable antigen match with a wealthy European recipient in need of the organ (and willing to pay for the organ). Or, another moral equivalent: performing experiments on concentration camp prisoners by Nazi “doctors” such as exposing the prisoners to freezing conditions and observing effects of hypothermia until death.

    Your article was very helpful in bringing some light on this evil. Perhaps it will help the church stand up against this horror and not be complicit with it (like the German church was with the Nazi death camps).

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  • http://freestylefam.com Quest The Wordsmith

    Very interesting article. Curious… I’ve heard they’ve cloned cows and each cow comes out exactly alike. In your article you mention the problems with human cloning concerning mitochondria dna. Wouldn’t the same problems apply to animals?

    Also, do you feel any moral resistance to animal cloning? One quick thought is that if you have a perfectly healthy animal with excellent genes, why not clone it to secure quality of food? Thanks for any insight.

  • Joe Carter

    Also, do you feel any moral resistance to animal cloning?

    The main concerning animal cloning is whether it increases the amount of animal suffering in the world. As John Hopkins bioethicist Hilary Bok explains,

    Cloning causes animals to suffer. Egg donors must have their ovaries artificially stimulated with hormone treatments and their eggs surgically harvested. Given the unusually high rates of late-term miscarriages and high birth weights among clones, the surrogate mothers are at greater risk of dying or suffering serious complications than animals who become pregnant naturally. The clones, themselves, however, suffer the most serious problems: They are much more likely than other animals to be miscarried, have birth defects, develop serious illnesses, and die prematurely.

    However, if the procedures used for animal cloning do not increase suffering and do not pose threats to human health, I wouldn’t be opposed to them.