We are the first species to have taken evolution into our own hands," claimed the late Carl Sagan. His words sounded chillingly prophetic last month when the British government proposed the legalization of "limited" human cloning. Defenders of human dignity had better take quick notice.
The British decision came after a group of medical experts recommended that therapeutic cloning be allowed with human embryos. If OK'd by Parliament, the legislation would allow the cloning of human embryos for the sole purpose of removing the powerful "stem cells" for purposes of research-a procedure that destroys the embryo.
"Stem-cell research opens up a new medical frontier," said Liam Donaldson, Britain's chief medical officer. He is certainly correct, but the ethical concerns are ominous, and those who defend the sanctity of human life now face a serious new threat.
Controversy over experimentation with human embryos reaches a new level with demands for access to stem cells. At present, pluripotent stem cells are available only from "spare" human embryos produced by in vitro fertilization treatments. The British government currently allows experimentation with embryos under 14 days old. Once they reach the 14-day threshold, they are destroyed. Of course, removing the stem cells also destroys the embryo.
The current British proposal takes these experiments one frightening step further. The Brits want to clone human embryos for the sole purpose of experimentation. Cloaking their proposal in language about "cell nuclear replacement," the British scientists want permission to clone human embryos in order to produce stem cells identical to those in a living human patient.
The "slippery slope" toward a culture of death is clearly evident in the arguments put forth by the British panel of medical experts. Since British law currently allows for experimentation on living human embryos up to 14 days old, the shift to cloning "does not raise any new ethical issues." In other words, once the moral repugnance of destroying human embryos is crossed, it really doesn't matter how the embryos are produced. The British report also proposes that germ cells could be removed from aborted fetuses, though these may not hold as much potential as cells drawn from embryos.
British and American researchers pressing for legalization and funding of this research share a common argument-the great potential for the treatment of intractable illnesses outweighs the value of the human embryo. This argument is persuasive to the public. The Clinton administration has already bought it, and Vice President Gore has signaled his intention to allow the research and funding if elected.
The issue may erupt in the presidential debates. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, a leading proponent of stem-cell research, told The New York Times: "If there is a President (George W.) Bush, by executive order he could stop these things."
If so, he would be heeding the warnings issued by Germans. Given their horrible memories of Nazi medical experiments on humans, the Germans outlaw any removal of genetic material from human embryos. As Evangelical Church spokesman Thomas Krueger reflected, "Our barbaric past is one more reason to oppose it."
A culture that allows the manufacture, manipulation, and destruction of human embryos-plus the abortion of its unborn young and the assisted suicide of its old and ill-is headed toward the wholesale redefinition of human life and human dignity. This brings us to the frightening prospect of an even more barbaric future.