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Proper Sentiment and Human Cloning

Stephen Clark on the responsibilities of those who create new kinds of life.

On 17th June 1999, details of the first human embryo to be cloned were released. According to the BBC website (http://news.bbc.co.uk) the cloning was achieved the previous November, using a cell from a man’s leg and a cow’s egg. “The scientists who created it [working for American Cell Technology] see it as a significant step forward in the search for a way of producing human stem cells.” They let the clone develop for twelve days before incinerating it. “Dr Robert Lanza, ACT’s director of tissue engineering, told the Daily Mail newspaper that the embryo cannot be seen as a person before 14 days.” They have identified their goal as ‘therapeutic’ rather than ‘reproductive’ cloning. And “Lord Robert Winston, the British fertility expert, said the research was ‘totally ethical’.”

We can quickly agree that if it were possible to produce and cultivate stem cells, with a view to growing transplantable limbs and organs, nerve-cells, hormones and suitably modified marrow-cells, this would be of considerable medical importance. It may be that this is what is going to happen whatever anyone says, thinks, or feels about it. And when it has happened, most of us will be quite happy to use the results. But there are some features of the rush to judgement which disturb me – quite apart from any doubts that we might have about the reliability of the factual claims.

Dr Lanza and Lord Winston both seem to take their own judgement as so obviously true that no-one could rationally dispute it. The embryo cannot be seen as a person before 14 days. The research is totally ethical. The only question is apparently whether we should allow or encourage scientists to bring such clones to term. This puzzles me. On other occasions scientists – and especially perhaps biological scientists – are inclined to say that ethical judgement is only a matter of biologically and socially explicable sentiment, not science. Maybe so – but in that case, what grounds their belief in their own sentiments as so much more serious and significant than other people’s? If there is no fact of the matter, then the dispute is about sentiment or social policy – and scientists have no special claim to any authority. All that Dr Lanza and Lord Winston are entitled to say is that they don’t themselves feel queasy about creating and incinerating human or chimeric embryos, and ask us politely for our tolerance or support.

My guess is that Dr Lanza and Lord Winston find the experiment obviously okay because they are only concerned with what can suffer, or have its dignity infringed. Because (they suppose) no-one was actually hurt in the procedure, and no-one’s subjective dignity was impaired, no-one was injured. Retrieving the bovine ovum is clearly an invasive procedure, but a very familiar one whose costs to the cow are generally considered small. A pre-implantation embryo probably has no feelings, and certainly has no sense of its own self-worth or social standing. But this claim that there is no wrong done if no-one is in a position to recognize an injury is at least debatable.

Could it not be said that the pre-implantation embryo, the implanted embryo and the eventual infant are all the very same entity? If so, it is that entity which is, arguably, injured either by incineration or by being born with whatever handicaps (physical or social) it may have to endure as a result of its unusual origin. The fact that it doesn’t know it’s been injured is beside the point. It has, of course, also been argued that people don’t exist until much later in the development of their material vehicle, but this is a metaphysical dispute which has no generally agreed resolution. It has also been argued that the zygote cannot be the very same entity as will normally grow out of it, because two or more such entities might grow from it: I don’t think this is a very good argument, but (once again) it is certainly a metaphysical one. The use of ‘implantation’ or ‘14 days’ as a cut-off point is better understood as a pragmatic than a principled choice. After that, the team, in the present state of knowledge, would have had to take the positive and controversial step of implanting the embryo in someone’s womb if they meant to keep it alive. It may be that some people will interpret the 14-day limit as a judgement on the moral standing of the embryo, as though it suffered some substantial change at 14 days. Other moments that have been variously suggested for suddenly granting the entity some legal protection have been ‘the formation of the primitive streak’, ‘quickening’, ‘becoming capable of extra-uterine survival’, ‘birth’, ‘paternal acknowledgement’, ‘first words’, ‘the moment when the child first walks away’. None of these seem to be particularly compelling. Fertilization (though this too is a process with several stages) is the moment when it is most plausible to suppose that the particular entity begins.

Some commentators will ask whether a tissue culture also counts as an entity to be respected. Certainly, such a culture should not be treated as mere ‘stuff’. But it is nothing more, they say, than an isolated growth. The fused cell was maybe more than tissue: it was – maybe – on the way to being a definite organism rather than a mere proliferation of identical cells. But is that enough to make it an entity? If we could already grow an organ (as some experimenters are attempting to grow a heart, by encouraging tissue taken from an existing heart to grow around a plastic template) there would be no creature to consider except the eventual patient whose heart could be replaced with a laboratory-grown substitute. Why should the ‘clone’ be anything more than that? Perhaps the experimenters would have been wise to avoid the term entirely, since they thereby gave some substance to the thought that there was indeed a single, separate entity there. Consider further: if we do succeed in growing particular organs from such cloned cells, will they be merely ‘separate parts’ or will they be badly mutilated persons, human creatures reared in conditions that make them vulnerable to socio-medical predation? This too is a metaphysical issue.

On the other hand, even if it were true that nobody was injured in the procedure, since there was no-one there, or noone was left worse-off than otherwise they would have been, it does not follow that the procedure must be innocent: a dead human body is, obviously, not injured by anything that is done to it. Even the human being whose body it was may not be injured by its posthumous condition. Nor is it obvious that a person deliberately conceived with, say, Tay-Sachs has been injured: after all, if s/he hadn’t been conceived in just that way, s/he wouldn’t exist at all. But a dead body should still be treated with respect (as should any human tissue or organ: could there be innocent lampshades made of human skin, or goblets made from a human skull?). And there is plainly something wrong in deliberately conceiving someone with Tay-Sachs even if they will be no worse off than otherwise they would have been. Maybe the insertion of a human nucleus into an emptied bovine ovum, or even an emptied human ovum, is no injury: it might still be an offence. Respect for humanity – and perhaps also respect for animality – might demand that we not treat creatures as if they were mere material, even if the victims aren’t conscious of the offence, and even if they wouldn’t mind if they were. We shouldn’t, in general, bring about ‘a worse state of things’ even if that worse state involves no real injuries.

To spell the latter point out: the traditional principle identified by Immanuel Kant is that we should always treat humanity, in ourselves as well as in others, as an end and not merely as a means. No human being – not even a dead or irrecoverably comatose human being – is to be used merely as a resource or tool. One should not even injure oneself – which is why, traditionally, one cannot properly consent to being mutilated, branded, drugged or killed. We can’t license others to do any of those things to us, and may sometimes ourselves be punished for doing them to ourselves. Traditionally, this depends on a radical distinction between human and non-human animals which (see below) may not be sustainable. In the Letter to Families (2nd February 1994), John Paul II writes that “no living being on earth except man was created ‘in the image and likeness of God’”, and follows the Second Vatican Council in declaring flatly that man is “the only creature on earth whom God willed for its own sake.” According to the Pope (speaking in a long tradition of Catholic Humanism), “God ‘wills’ man as a being similar to himself, as a person. This man, every man, is created by God ‘for his own sake’. … Parents, in contemplating a new human being, are, or ought to be, fully aware of the fact that God ‘wills’ this individual ‘for his own sake’.” John Paul went on to warn of the dangers in ‘materialist’ accounts of humanity:

“The separation of spirit and body in man has led to a growing tendency to consider the human body, not in accordance with the categories of its specific likeness to God, but rather on the basis of its similarity to all the other bodies present in the world of nature, bodies which man uses as raw material in his efforts to produce goods for consumption. But everyone can immediately realize what enormous dangers lurk behind the application of such criteria to man. When the human body, considered apart from spirit and thought, comes to be used as raw material in the same way that the bodies of animals are used and this actually occurs for example in experimentation on embryos and foetuses we will inevitably arrive at a dreadful ethical defeat.”

Humanism of this traditional sort is not now as ‘obvious’ as it once was. The mere fact of our shared membership of the species homo sapiens is widely considered an inadequate ground for any special treatment. If it is ‘rational personhood’ that seriously demands respect then not all members of our species should be treated as ‘ends’, and perhaps some non-human creatures (apes, for example) should be. Those who advocate this ‘personism’ disagree about the criteria for personhood, and about the level of protection that they are prepared to extend to creatures who are not yet, or never will be, persons. The more ‘robust’ moralists among them even suggest that human children have no rights as persons until they can actually talk or make a verbal claim. This conflicts both with a brute biological concern for children, and with the minimum requirements of civilized morality. The Pope probably speaks for many (Catholic Humanism aside) in rebuking “the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection.” (Evangelium Vitae, 25th March 1995). But if we rely on that ‘profound sharing of affection’ it may be that other creatures than the human will fall within the bounds of our concern. In essence: either children, the senile or the profoundly imbecile have no greater moral standing than ‘animals’, or else ‘animals’ have, or may have, some moral standing as well. In this circumstance, even those moralists whose initial wish is only to defend the human may prefer to extend the law’s protection to non-human creatures rather than see it shrink to cover ‘adult, intelligent persons in good health and spirits’.

The other difficulty with Humanism is that it depends on a form of species-essentialism which is not now well-regarded by biologists. People who feel queasy about mixing human and non-human genes (or, as in this case, human and nonhuman cells) are typically reminded that there are no essen tially human genes. The human genome is made up from exactly the same bases and codons as any other genome, even if those codons spell out a somewhat different set of instructions. The thousand-or-so distinguishable genes that probably ‘make the difference’ between human and chimpanzee aren’t alien intrusions, but just more of the same bases, in slightly different orders. Nor are there any essential properties that all and only human beings possess in virtue of their humanity. Species have turned out to be sets of interbreeding populations, more or less isolated at a particular time from other such sets. The argument for genetic engineering is that we are simply exploring, just a little more quickly, the range of possibilities that natural evolution also explores. But this approach has subtler implications. If species are only accidentally isolated populations, why should we suppose that radically different ethical rules apply to members of those various populations, any more than to people on opposite sides of a street? If we are concerned for kin, why not for our fellow anthropoids, primates, mammals, and vertebrates? All of us, apparently, are simply variations on a genetic theme: to genuine outsiders we probably look very much alike. If there is no outrageous ‘crossing of a line’ in yoking human nucleus and bovine ovum (since people and cattle are all mammals) what grounds the conviction that bovine ova (or bovine adults) are beyond the moral pale? In brief: why shouldn’t we conclude that there is as good a reason to think that everything ‘exists for its own sake’ and has its very own value as that members of our very own species do?

John Paul, of course, is taking it for granted that there are serious moral and metaphysical laws whose authority does not depend on our agreement with them. Infanticide was wrong three thousand years ago, and is still wrong in many countries that allow or encourage it. A merely ‘secular’ State cannot, perhaps, make any such claim to ethical authority. The usual defence of the ‘liberal’ or ‘secular’ State is that it is strictly neutral about metaphysical problems, or any ethical question which goes beyond the minimum rules of decency. That neutrality is often criticized as hypocritical: all manner of metaphysical conclusions – as above – are usually taken as gospel. Nonetheless, even a hypocritical State requires us to rely upon fairly honest agreements – both those achieved within the borders of the State and those negotiated on our behalf with neighbouring powers. In this context, the European Union’s agreement that non-human animals should be treated as the sentient creatures that they are, places limits on what any member-State agrees. Sentient creatures should not be caused unnecessary pain or distress – but they also have a claim to our support, in the enjoyment of their ‘natural’ lives: we should do what we reasonably can to ensure their welfare. The point about the so-called Fourth Freedom, identified by the Brambell Committee in 1965 and since then made a central plank of many animal-welfare charters, is that animals should enjoy the freedom ‘to express their normal behaviour’, to do what comes naturally. This will often include self-determining behaviour: hardly any animal is wholly constrained by given instinctual programmes and most of the ones we deal with certainly have their individual and changeful preferences. It follows that any interference in the life that an individual animal prefers (including, of course, killing it: a fairly final interference) is of the nature of an injury. It is, prima facie, a bad thing to make their lives impossible, or impossibly difficult, whether by confining or damaging them or by destroying their normal habitat. Agreeing in this, we may still, sometimes, choose to hamper them for some higher good (or greater personal advantage): if we do, we owe them, by our own agreement, extra. The fact that we haven’t thought this through, and even that we are often loath to pay our way, is not the point. Those who signed the Declaration of Independence, with its fine words about ‘all men’ being ‘created equal’, were all slave-holders, and it took generations to admit that ‘men’ included women and non-whites. Other agreements about our proper treatment of non-human creatures may take as long to understand and implement.

The morals I draw from all this are as follows:

In the absence of any universally acknowledged objective code of Law, we have to rely instead on our best agreements about what to tolerate or support. Even if there is such an objective code, our best chance of identifying it is through an open, dialectical negotiation between and on behalf of all the interested parties. If we intend to rely upon questionable metaphysical assumptions, that should at least be explicit, and open to negotiated change. Those agreements should be motivated, in part, by our wish to minimize suffering and improve the quality of life for those creatures, human or non-human, for whom we have responsibility. There is a serious question about the ethics of counting improvements in one creature’s life as compensation for damage to another’s: it is probably impossible, for now, to reach a principled agreement on this point.

Agreements should also be motivated by, and express, our respect for the sort of personal or quasi-personal life that we can recognize in humans and in non-humans.

Respect should go further than unwillingness to cause or to ignore subjective distress; it should even go further than a willingness to allow or even assist creatures to manage their own lives. Just as respect for humanity demands that we even treat dead bodies with a degree of reverence, so must respect for the life we share with other creatures not of ‘our own species’. It would be best to encourage a respect for living material bordering upon awe amongst all those who work with animals. If traditional Humanism now needs to be modified, let us prefer to extend a similar respect to nonhumans rather than fulfil John Paul’s nightmare by treating human beings as we have treated ‘animals’. Traditionalists have emphasized that cruelty is a sin. So also is neglect. So also is the willed, unimaginative indifference that Philo of Alexandria castigated in around 40A.D.: “The person who boils the flesh of lambs or kids or any other young animal in their mother’s milk, shows himself cruelly brutal in character and gelded of compassion, that most vital of emotions and most nearly akin to the rational mind.” (Virtues, 144 with reference to Exodus 23.19, 34.26 and Deuteronomy 14.21)

Establishing or condoning institutional practices which treat other animals as mere material is therefore wrong. The Mosaic requirement not to muzzle the ox that treads out the corn has a wider reference than oxen, or than labouring at the mill: it is a typically precise way of demanding that we pay our way. We shouldn’t only avoid demanding more of our fellow creatures than they can reasonably bear, but should also give them reason to cooperate with us in what we ask of them.

Finally, even if we tolerate, or tentatively support, attempts to build new creatures and new kinds of creature (human and non-human), our aim must always be to give them the respect that is their due. The peril of ‘building’ creatures is that we will come to think them artifacts, owed no more honour than any other of our machines or tools.

So should the experiment have been allowed? And should other such experiments be tolerated or supported? We should certainly not approve of causing extreme suffering, or creating creatures who must suffer extremely. Nor should we approve of acts that involve treating any living creature as mere material, or as an artifact, valued only for its usefulness to us. The prospect of discovering ways of healing living bodies is a great temptation, to which we shall, most probably, succumb. But let us not suppose that we are ‘totally ethical’ in doing so, nor that we have no need to respect the creatures we use or, possibly, create. In many traditional societies those who save a life are thereafter held responsible for it: how much more so, those who claim to create a life. The creature probably created by the fusion of a human nucleus and a bovine ovum was owed something. Maybe that debt could not be paid, and maybe there will in the end be sufficient profit from the act to excuse if not entirely and unambiguously to justify it. But noone should suppose that our consciences must be clear.

© Professor Stephen R.L. Clark. 2000

Stephen Clark is Professor of Philosophy at Liverpool University, and a member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, and of the Animals Procedures Committee. His most recent book is Biology and Christian Ethics (Cambridge U.P.)

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