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Therapeutic cloning – Deus ex machina?

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Human dignity, which begins at the embryonic stage, forbids the use of therapeutic cloning. Especially when alternatives can be found

In August 2004, the first licence for therapeutic cloning was granted to researchers at the University of Newcastle. However, the use of embryos for therapeutic means remains a highly controversial topic. The Council of Europe adopted the “Oviedo Convention” in 1999, which states in article 18 that the creation of human embryos is not permitted for research purposes. In the same vein, the European Parliament announced on September 7th 2000 in a resolution about the cloning of human beings that “alternative ways exist to cure serious illnesses, other than the cloning of embryos” and that “there is no difference between cloning embryos for therapeutic or reproductive reasons”. The chief arguments against cloning are therefore based on the principle of human dignity, which can be understood as a framework outlining the particular rights of every human being. This principle is of inherent value to all individuals and should be upheld by international institutions.

All or nothing

Societies must protect human dignity, not only in relation to specific violations of human rights but also from the consequences of certain actions which may damage it in the future. Human dignity is indivisible, meaning that no partial dignity exists: it is either respected or violated. Unfortunately, this dignity is of a very fragile nature and so to limit the protection accorded to it will have dire consequences. How can all this be related to therapeutic cloning? First of all, even those who believe that human rights (derived from the principle of dignity) are subject to change with time, cannot deny the idea that each multiplying atom can potentially become a human being. It is exactly this possibility, this “human potential” (1) that is in need of protection. Here it is not necessary to prove that a specific cell is a human being, neither that it will be one. It is enough to recognise that it might become one. On the other hand it can be stated that in case of doubt, we need to presume the cell to be of human nature and treat it accordingly, as the contrary has yet to be proven.

No Trespassing

However, it is also true that the right to life is not absolute: it can be violated if someone else’s rights are at stake. But this justification is only valid when both parties’ rights are taken into account and weighed up. So why not use cells for cloning when they do not represent a threat to the life or health of those who could benefit from such a therapy? For the same reason that it is illegal to remove someone’s heart and donate it to someone else before they have been declared dead: there is no justification for it and it is a violation of a person’s dignity. The same scenario applies in the case of therapeutic human cloning

Further arguments against therapeutic cloning equally need to be considered: the prospect of utilising adult cells has yet to be exhausted; there is a risk of developing tumours (a side-effect of cloning seen in animal clones); and how will the ban on reproductive cloning be implemented when the only difference between the two types is that the cloned cells are implanted into the uterus in the first case and not in the latter? All the aforementioned indicate that a total ban on cloning, therapeutic or otherwise, is absolutely necessary. Progress is necessary, but there remain some frontiers that are not to be crossed.


(1) F. Fukuyama, Koniec czowieka, Znak, Kraków 2004 [Our Posthuman Future. Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution]

Translated from Le clonage thérapeutique – Deus ex machina ?