If a Scientist told you that he was “arresting the development of a blastocyst before implantation” or “transferring a nucleus from a human tissue cell to a enucleated human oocyte”, would you understand or question the ethical issues arising from the procedures he has described? However, if you were told that what he had described is the production and destruction of a human life for curing diseases or for experimental purposes, what would you feel about the same procedures?
Human cloning, stem cell research, abortion and the sale or commercialization of human reproductive materials are some of the hotly debated issues of our time. They evoke different reactions from people ranging from extremes of animosity and outrage to lack of interest and apathy. In this article I would like to present an Orthodox Christian perspective on two of these issues, human cloning and stem cell research.
Background to Cloning and Stem Cells
What is a clone? A “clone’ is a group of identical individuals of plants or animals, which has originated from one individual by vegetative propagation or asexual reproduction. The members in the clone look alike, as they are genetically similar.
New methods have been developed to produce individual animals such as sheep, dog and humans by asexual methods; in other words, individuals of these species are developed without fertilizing their eggs with their sperms. Thus, cloning is an experimental technique by which identical individuals are produced from a single animal by manipulating a tissue cell of that animal.
The term “cloning” has taken on different meanings within the conceptual and experimental contexts. Cloning in itself refers to the production of a biological entity which is genetically identical or very similar to the one from which it originated. Cloning can occur naturally in the uterus prior to implantation of the fertilized egg in the wall of the uterus. It occurs when one fertilized egg splits into two giving rise to two identical twins. However, this article deals with cloning when defined as the artificial manipulation of mammalian embryonic material at the early stages of development to produce two or more similar (identical) babies.
Human cloning is the scientific technique by which a human being is generated. There are currently three purposes for which human cloning may be attempted; “Reproductive cloning” is the reproduction (producing a copy) of a human being, “Therapeutic cloning” is used to generate embryonic stem cells for tissue engineering and transplantations or for use in cell therapy, and “Nucleus reprogramming” is for experimentation to increase scientific knowledge and understanding of the developmental processes and dynamics.
Now let us consider “stem cells”. Human beings are placental mammals. The fertilized egg or (zygote) develops inside the mother. The zygote grows by cell division, passing through two, four, eight, sixteen- celled stages. A blas-tu-la is formed at the stage in embryonic development of animals at the end or immediately following the stage of cleavage of the ovum. It consists of a ball made up of a single layer of cells enclosing a fluid-filled cavity. The blastula develops a blas-to-disk, which is the embryo-forming part of a fertilized egg. The remainder of the blastula develops into the placenta which is discarded at birth. It is from the cells of the blastodisk that the stem cells are harvested. Scientists have isolated these embryonic cells that are capable of becoming different organs. It is now known that the stemcells can turn into any type of cell /tissue in the body. That means, stem cells might one day be used to generate replacement tissue for damaged organs and treat numerous diseases.