Playing god

Article published on Nov. 23, 2004
community published
Article published on Nov. 23, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

What was pure science fiction less than 20 years ago has today become reality. Laboratories all over the world are developing more and more effective technical procedures that may soon allow cloning and its therapeutic use

Los Angeles 2019. The androids produced by the Tyrell Corporation - genetically engineered robots which are half human, half machine - are rebelling against their slavery. A special police force, the Blade Runner, has the job of wiping out these prototypes from the face of the earth.

Blade Runner (1982) continues to be one of the most admired films of our time. Through this film, director Ridley Scott made us think about a possible future, that is all too close, in which man is capable of using genetic engineering to create these almost human prototypes.

Reproductive cloning versus therapeutic cloning

Essentially, the first steps in order to make this film a plausible reality have already been taken. The recent experiments undertaken in South Korea by a group of scientists from the national university of Seoul, lead by doctor Woo Suk Hwang, have managed to show that it is possible to clone human embryos in order to obtain stem cells. This discovery, however, was only a matter of time and it has further heightened the political, scientific, ethic, moral and social debate around the world. Other investigative groups such as that run by Bernat Sória, a Spanish scientist funded by the Council of Andalucia, are investigating genetic lineage, while Juan Carlos Izpisúa, the future director of the Centre into the Investigation into Regenerative Medicine in Balcelona (CIMRB), is already working at the heart of this field.

However, to be able to enter into this debate one must clearly be able to differentiate between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The first is the more controversial on an ethical level, and is considered the inevitable climax of any research into cloning. It opens up the possibility of creating a human being without the use of the natural reproductive process by using stem cells obtained from surplus embryos from IVF treatment. These cells are capable of creating an entire organism when stimulated in the correct manner. These cells can be genetically modified, offering the possibility to select certain characteristics to create “designer babies”.

The second opens up the possibility to use these stem cells to help the fatally ill or those with physically disabilities. Many of the diseases that plague modern man, like diabetes or Alzheimer’s, are caused by cellular degeneration. The possibility to incorporate cells that regenerate would mean an end to these illnesses. Also, it could open the door to the production of organs in vitro (in the laboratory). The long waiting lists for transplants would disappear overnight. There would be organs available for all those who needed them. And looking further forward, we may be able to find a solution for those who have lost limbs and perhaps even a cure for the most inevitable of illnesses - old age.

They are, however, two sides of the same coin. The technical procedures which enable therapeutic cloning inevitably lead to the possibility of achieving reproductive cloning. Stem cell technology is a great advance in biomedicine and it is an area of research that must not be halted. But cloning as a way to reproduce, for example to over come the problems of infertility, is very controversial. It opens the door to the phenomena of “designer babies” and to the controversial topic of genetic selection. This is perhaps a route that is excessively dangerous when other strategies, such as adoption, are much less costly and better for society.

Those against

Many of the parties that speak out against these types of advances in technology do so in the same way as they have done throughout history. Whenever science takes a leap forward there is controversy, as seen in the reaction to Copernicus and Galileo when they challenged the belief that the world was flat. The parties that spoke out then are the same ones that speak out today against Professor Bernat Soria and his colleagues that work in the field of biotechnology and genetic development: religious groups and conservative governments.

In Spain the Catholic Church has campaigned tirelessly to show its objection to this kind of work. It argues that the embryos from which scientists obtain stem cells are potential human beings and therefore and it is little less than a capital sin to endorse this type of work, which is in theory the exclusive right of God. Last November (2003), Jose Maria Aznar, leader of the then ruling PP government (the Spanish equivalent to the Conservative party) passed a law restricting this type of work. Something similar occurred in the USA and, since his re-election, President George Bush and his followers have continued to speak out against this type of research, also basing this objection on extreme religious sentiment.

Governments worry that our future is put in danger with these scientific advances, but they don’t think twice before declaring war without good cause. Governments dedicate a large part of their annual budget to defence and the making and selling of arms. Is this a more justifiable cause from a moral and ethical point of view than research into stem cell technology? On 29th October 2004, the Spanish government headed by Zapatero changed the law to allow research into human embryos. And for the coming year they are preparing a law on biomedical research. These two initiatives have been applauded by all in the Spanish scientific community. It appears that the best way forward is to ensure that this research is carefully monitored and to strive for complete regulation of these practices, establishing the moral and ethical limits of society.

Although it is hard to see the advantages of reproductive cloning, our fears must not impede the advancement of cures for diseases which could be irradiated in our life time.