December 15th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Editorial: The Advent of Christmas

TESTIMONIAL: News Weekly - a variety of ideas and points of view

Canberra Observed: After the election: new look for both sides

BIOETHICS: There is no scientific need to clone embryos

Adult stem cell breakthrough

National Day of Action over banks' job cuts

Straws in the Wind: Insiders, celebrities and Tic-Tac men

Western Australia: Gallop's drug 'compromise'

Media: Parliamentary press gallery poll predictions

Letter: Roots of terror

Letter: History repeats?

Letter: Reinvention

Letter: Patrol boats

Letter: Doing what's right - Mary Whitehouse CBE

United States: Torture, assassination and the Death of God

Comment: Economic policy: how they got it wrong

TRADE: After Qatar: Australia’s limited options

BOOKS: 'Gallipoli', by Les Carlyon

BOOKS: 'Language and the Internet', by David Crystal

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There is no scientific need to clone embryos

by Dr David van Gend

News Weekly, December 15, 2001

The pious declarations by scientists that human cloning would never be undertaken were - on the evidence of last month - not to be taken seriously. David van Gend explains why developments in the United States will actually be bad for medicine.

The first of a race of laboratory human beings has been created, the first absolute orphan.

The cloned embryo, unlike its IVF cousin, has no mother or father, and is intended for destruction. It is the identical twin of its tissue-donor, which might be a living person or a dead person, or even just a fragment of anonymous human tissue from the hospital freezer.

The clone is nobody’s child. Human kinship is grotesquely violated; the new Homo experimentus is outside the circle of human belonging, and its creation as an excluded, exploited human existence is the moral heart of this matter.


The Senate Select Committee on Human Embryo Experimentation advised in 1985 "that the concept of guardianship be adopted as the most appropriate model to indicate the respect due to the embryo". The cloned embryo is intended to be cut off from such protection, since there is no parent, no guardian - and therefore no cramping of the experimenter’s style.

The experimenters reject any moral obligation to the cloned embryo, reminding us repeatedly of its insignificant size, "smaller than a full stop".

From the perspective of the Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life, significance is not a function of size; a human existence is measured not in milligrams but in "meaning", in the fact of a new human Name being written into our common story.

Our constitution declares:

"From the earliest moment of biologic existence the developing human being is alive and entirely distinct".

We affirm that the fact of a distinct human existence, however conceived, binds us to do no harm, to act as guardians.

The battle over cloning is fundamentally a battle over human meaning, not over medical technology. We are all on the same side medically; we all love stem cells.

The vital point is that these precious magic bullets can be obtained without cloning and cannibalising embryos. Ethical sources of stem cells such as adult or placental tissue show greater promise, rendering cloning redundant.

Professor John Shine, of Sydney’s Garvan Institute, stated in March, "You don’t need to clone a human … there is no valid reason for it any more". (Daily Telegraph, March 12, 2001). He describes how "we are now able to take an [adult] skin cell, deprogram it back into stem cells and regrow them into a nerve cell or something else".

Likewise the chair of a Royal Society group on therapeutic cloning, Professor Richard Gardner: "I think therapeutic cloning is not terribly realistic. This other approach of reprogramming later cells makes sense."

Other Australian authorities pointing the ethical direction include the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, which reports that "adult stem nerve cells can grow into other types of tissue", and the Murdoch Institute which uses "umbilical cord blood, the richest source of stem cells, not human embryo stem cells" (The Australian, November 27, 2001).

The latter, innocent source of stem cells invites a visionary move from our leaders: let Australia become the first country where all newborn babies have their stem cells routinely harvested from their own placenta, preserved for any future needs, as one American company now offers to babies of the élite.

So the recent wanton experiment in so-called "therapeutic" cloning is not only evil, in that it creates and destroys dehumanised embryos, but an unnecessary evil, in that there are acceptable alternatives for achieving the promise of these all-powerful stem cells.

It is also, arguably, a greater evil than the "reproductive" cloning so loudly disavowed by scientists, since to clone with the "therapeutic" view of cannibalising the embryo at one week of age is a greater desecration than cloning with the "reproductive" view of letting the embryo live to be a baby.

And for those who care for clarity in debate, the very term "therapeutic" is misleading and should be rejected. The Australian Health Ethics Committee stated last December:

"[T]herapeutic interventions are interventions directed towards the well-being of the individual embryo involved.

"The more recently coined term ‘therapeutic cloning’ collapses the distinction between therapeutic and non-therapeutic research on embryos...

" It was because of the lack of transparency of the term ‘therapeutic cloning’, because the term concealed rather than revealed these ethically-significant differences, that AHEC rejected its use."

There is one corrupting consequence of cloning which is unprecedented, and largely unrecognised. It is the fact that, with this latest predation on innocent human life, all of us will become consumers-at-a-distance, whether we like it or not. Our children will all become compulsory beneficiaries of medical advances derived from destructive experimentation on embryos, their conscience unable to exercise any right of objection - unlike a situation such as abortion, where they might refuse to participate.

If the tree of medical knowledge is to be mulched with the bodies of cloned embryos, its fruit will become widely tainted.

There can be no conscientious refusal to consume such fruit without a radical dislocation from everyday medical care, since beneficial medical products will increasingly be derived, directly or indirectly, from the embryonic stem cell industry.

That fait accompli, that compelling of conscience, is a violation of the core principle of a free society, and is grounds in itself for rejecting a policy of cloning.

The battle over cloning, which once seemed lost to the biomedical juggernaut, is now eminently winnable, thanks to the discovery by science itself of viable ethical alternatives. Our leaders need to understand that cloning for stem cells can be banned outright without abandoning the promise of stem cell technology.

Both the NSW and now the Queensland Parliaments need to withdraw their morally muddled "clone and destroy embryos" Bills, as being both offensive to human dignity and redundant to scientific progress. There is no longer any scientific imperative to clone human embryos.

Our moral duty now coincides with our scientific objectives, through developing the promise of adult/placental stem cells, while rejecting the "therapeutic" cloning and cannibalising of our young.

  • Dr David van Gend is Queensland secretary of the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life

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