The Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations is a Federation of pro-life groups representing all States and Territories in Australia except Victoria. The philosophy underpinning the existence of the Federation is the inherent value of each human life, each with its own unique genetic makeup, and that each person possesses certain basic rights, the most fundamental of which is the right to life. Therefore the Federation and its member Associations’ activities focus on the protection of human life at each stage of its development from conception till natural death.
Although the general intention and coverage of the Federation’s interests is clear, cloning does pose an interesting issue in the detail since cloned human beings would not be “conceived” in the usual understanding of the term, but rather would have life initiated by a number of other methods.
The Federation appreciates the large investment of effort by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs into exploring the ethical difficulties of human cloning.
In commenting on the NHMRC report Scientific, Ethical and Regulatory Aspects of Human Cloning (1) and the issue of human cloning, the Federation considers that human cloning should be banned as it is contrary to human dignity and is ultimately exploitative, involving the destruction of early human life.
Cloning techniques may be used to initiate a human life or embryoid (an organism with a structure resembling an embryo) in a number of ways, including:
(a) by replacing the nucleus of an ovum or embryo with another nucleus from a body cell (a somatogenetic embryoid);
(b) by triggering a mature ovum to start differentiation, without the penetration of a sperm, by the use of various stimuli (a parthenogenetic embryoid); and,
(c) the use of microsurgery to split an embryo into a limited number of embryoids (embryo splitting).
Whilst a scientist may be able to initiate growth of an embryoid, there do not appear to be any verified cases of this actually resulting in human foetal development. (2)
All human lives deserve respect
While the Federation is opposed to human cloning, if such cloning were to take place, the result, whatever method of cloning is used, would be a new genetically distinct human life which deserves our respect. Although some embryoids may not have the capacity to develop to adulthood, they should all be given every opportunity to do so.
The United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of the Child states that “… the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth”.
The Senate Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1995 majority report, tabled in the Senate on 8 October 1986, found that the embryo was “… genetically new human life organised as a distinct entity oriented towards further development …”. The Committee also stated that the embryo should be protected from “… destructive non-therapeutic experimentation …”. (3)
Both the UN declaration and the Senate Select Committee report mentioned above indicate that all human embryos deserve full protection from the moment of conception or the moment that life is initiated.
Cloning is ultimately exploitative
On the face of it, Article 11 of the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights seems to rule out human cloning when it says that “practices which are contrary to human dignity, such as reproductive cloning of human beings, shall not be permitted.”
However, some people have argued that, although human reproductive cloning should be banned, it should be permissible to clone a human embryo, provided that the embryo is not allowed to become a foetus. (4) For example, the Australian Academy of Science argues that “… human cells, whether derived from cloning techniques, from ES [embryonic stem] cells, or from primordial germ cells should not be precluded from use in approved research activities in cellular and developmental biology.” (5)
This use of a cloned individual who is then disposed of before the foetal stage has, perhaps ironically, been called “therapeutic” cloning. Presumably this “therapy” refers to the uses to which the results of the experimentation will be put, rather than to there being any advantage from these procedures to the particular embryo that is the subject of the procedure.
Implicit in the concept of “therapeutic” cloning is the idea that an embryo can be created or obtained for the purposes of medical research, and bear no ethical or human significance of its own except insofar as it is a subject of the research. Such an idea is utterly contrary to human dignity.
Every individual human life has the dignity of an individual identity from the first moment of its life. This dignity demands that each human being, intrinsically valuable, not be subordinated and ultimately sacrificed to an extrinsic value such as medical research, however noble the particular goal is.
If medical research is to serve humankind, then it must not involve the exploitation of human life. A conflict in this area indicates a fundamental confusion of values, which will easily lead to more and more exploitative practices, justified in the name of advancing human health. It will also distance the research community from the ethical basis and stimulus of their work: the health of human beings, which is a good fundamentally related to the dignity and human values of human beings.
The technological imperative
The Committee should be very careful not to be swayed by any claims of great scientific advances that may be made from the production of embryoids from cloning and subsequent experimentation on those embryoids. It is very tempting to accept the argument of the technological imperative: that if something can be done and that if an advantageous outcome can be had from experimentation, then ethical difficulties associated with the process can somehow be balanced out by the good outcome.
This risk is recognised in the National Health and Medical Research Council report, where it notes that “… knowledge and understanding are good things in themselves. So too is the relief of suffering caused by infertility and the availability of a supply of histocompatible organs and tissues. However, none of these objectives is absolutely good in the sense that it may be pursued without regard to the ethical acceptability of the means employed towards its achievement …”. (6)
In one particular study detailed in Science, “excess” human embryos from a fertility clinic were used for isolating and growing human stem cells. (7) The process of isolating stem cells means the embryo is dismembered at the blastocyst stage. In other words, it is destroyed. This type of experimentation is of its nature exploitative and destructive of human lives. It would be far better in this instance to use ordinary body cells, as is currently done with the culturing of skin cells in laboratories, avoiding embryo deaths. This issue indicates the importance of identifying ethical research alternatives.
The application of Australian law
Restrictions on cloning in Australia should not merely be limited to refusing Australian research funds, nor to restricting the use of Australian-produced cells. Legislation should be framed so that it cannot be circumvented by the simple technique of importing embryos, cloning experiments or products, or by exporting Australian embryos overseas for procedures prohibited in Australia.
For example, Professor Alan Trounson of the Melbourne Institute of Reproduction and Development is reported to be investigating human embryonic stem cells by using and destroying embryos sourced from the National University of Singapore from women in a Singapore IVF program. (8)
In addition to the use of human cloning techniques for the advancement of scientific knowledge, there is the potential for cloning to be used for genetic screening, to ensure that human beings with certain characteristics are not allowed to develop beyond the embryo stage. Cloning can be used to create twin embryos, so that one twin may be subjected to destructive methods of checking for genetic disease, while the other twin survives and is implanted if no disease is detected. Alternatively, if disease is detected, both twins are destroyed.
Other genetic screening techniques which do not involve cloning are currently used during the foetal stage of human development, generally to eliminate unborn children with a disability. The demonising of disability is aptly demonstrated by the often-used phrase “severe foetal abnormality”. What this phrase really means is that all unborn children who can be detected with a disability, whether it be Spina Bifida, Down Syndrome or another condition, will be in danger of abortion. Both Spina Bifida and Down Syndrome are disabilities which present great challenges, but with which many people in our community live happy lives. These people are not the monsters implied by the offensive term “severe foetal abnormality”.
It has been aptly noted that “any failure to respect the right to life of the smallest and weakest members of the human family, be they disabled or not, constitutes a grave injustice. Indeed, the idea that some human beings may be sacrificed in order to promote the interests of others undermines the very concept of justice itself. This is because there can be no justice among human beings unless it is recognised that each and every person has the same basic human rights. And because this is so, neither the social usefulness nor the quality or stage of a person’s life can have any bearing on his right to life.” (9)
Genetic screening doesn’t just mean the end of many unborn children detected with a disability or some other unwanted characteristic, but that the lives of the people who slip through are devalued too.
The Federation supports the conclusion in the summary to chapter 3 of the NHMRC Report, that “… the more convincing, weighty and cogent arguments support constraints on the use of cloning techniques which involve human embryos.” (10)
The Federation recommends:
- that all human cloning, whether reproductive or therapeutic, be banned;
- that laws prohibiting human cloning be framed in such a way that no such experiments can be conducted in Australia;
- that laws should also prohibit the export of embryos from Australia for the purpose of cloning experiments; and,
- that alternative, ethically sound sources of tissue and organs, and alternative and ethical approaches to gene therapy be encouraged in order to overcome the immediate difficulties for some members of the scientific community which would be caused by the prohibition of human cloning.
1. National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) (1998), Scientific, ethical and regulatory considerations relevant to cloning of human beings. NHMRC, Canberra.
2. Australian Academy of Science (1999), On Human Cloning: A Position Statement. February. Page 11.
3. Senate Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985 (1986) Human Embryo Experimentation in Australia. AGPS, Canberra: pages 25, 29
4. This distinction is referred to in paragraph 3.4 of the NHMRC report. NHMRC (1998), op cit. Page 24.
5. Australian Academy of Science (1999), op cit. Page 17.
6. NHMRC (1998), op cit. Page 27.
7. Thompson, James et al (1998), Embryonic stem cell lines derived from human blastocysts. Science, No. 282, pages 1145-1147.
8. Smith, Deborah (1999), Cloning around. The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 September, page 42.
9. Sutton, Agneta (1990), Prenatal diagnosis: confronting the ethical issues. The Linacre Centre, London. Pages 131-132.
10. NHMRC (1998), op cit. Page 31.