It barely made news last week, but a hundred years from now, the big story out of 2001 may not be the attack on America or the war in Afghanistan but what happened in a petri dish in Worcester, Mass. For a few hours, three human embryos that had been created from single human cells taken from an adult man and infused into human eggs survived.
The cloning of human beings has begun.
Although the scientists who conducted this experiment claim their intention was not to create a human life but to create human embryonic stem cells, which could then be used for therapeutic purposes, the distinction will become meaningless. Does anyone doubt that others will follow in their footsteps and implant some future laboratory-cloned human embryos into a human womb? And there is nothing to stop them from doing so -- the process is perfectly legal, at least for now.
Although the House of Representatives passed a ban on human cloning in August, the Senate never acted. Several senators have now called the human cloning experiment troubling, including Sen. Patrick Leahy(D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee. But it remains to be seen whether they will act to try to stop further experiments. It is already illegal to use federal funds to clone human embryos. But will Congress take the next step and ban the procedure altogether?
The scientists at Advanced Cell Technology who created the Worcester clones say that they want to grow a human embryo only to the point when stem cells can be extracted -- which requires an embryo of at least a few hundred cells. This is supposed to give us moral reassurance. After all, these folks aren't trying to create some "Brave New World" of human baby factories or some real-life imitation of "The Boys From Brazil," a 1978 film about a Nazi scientist who cloned dozens of young Adolf Hitlers.
Maybe not. But they are talking about creating human life in order to harvest body parts -- and then destroying it. And the moral justification they use is that greater good would come from their experiments than whatever harm they might cause -- a kind of utilitarian ethics.
At the moment, scientists don't know whether stem cells taken from human embryos will help cure devastating diseases such as Parkinson's or help those who have been paralyzed from spinal cord injuries. Whatever stem cells scientists harvest now will be used solely for experiments -- which might or might not lead to such medical advances.
But for the sake of argument, let's assume research produces the ability to use human embryos for this purpose. Are we willing to sacrifice one life in order to save or improve perhaps hundred of others? If that is our criteria, why stop at using only stem cells harvested for that purpose?
Why not allow cloned embryos to develop until their organs can be harvested for transplant? If a cloned fetus could save or improve the lives of, say, a dozen others, why not sacrifice its heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, corneas, bone marrow and whatever else we can use?
And who should make the choice? The cell or egg donor? The Worcester scientists used cow eggs for some of their early human embryo experiments -- would that make it easier to use the body parts we needed without seeking permission?
If we're willing to use cloned human embryos to save lives, why shouldn't we consider sacrificing other human beings whose lives may be about to end anyway or who live in a permanent vegetative state? Should we be able to shave off a few hours or days from a terminally ill patient's life in order to save someone else's? China reportedly harvests organs from prisoners on death row. Should we?
Once we start down the road to creating life for utilitarian purposes, there is no bright line that separates the permissible from the unthinkable.