The Vatican, and likely many other pro-life groups, are up in arms about the latest work in human cloning. Such outrage was expected of course, and spokesman Elio Sgreccia, who heads the Pontifical Academy for Life, even tries to push the latest trendy talking point that such research is “a product of the past” supposedly in light of other breakthroughs with adult lines (which is false, so where are our friends at the National Review to bemoan this scientific dishonesty!?).
But one also gets the feeling that this breakthrough is threatening to the pro-life side in more ways than just to their ethical objections to the use of embryos. In fact, it brings forward a number of serious flaws in those very objections.
To begin with, the experiment involved an embryo without any traditional conception, something pro-life side has long insisted is a special and singular moment (which has always been wrong in any case, since far from a “moment,” it’s a complex process that can take days). The researchers in question simply tricked an egg cell to begin dividing as it would if it had been actually fertilized, even though it had not. Since human egg cells form with only half the complement of DNA, the researchers had additionally replaced this DNA with full copies from adult males (from two of the researchers in fact: something probably more legally pragmatic than narcissistic). They even used DNA taken from skin cells, a common example in pro/anti-stem cell debates of “fully human” cells that we have no moral compunction against killing.
The result was simply one more dramatic demonstration of the nature of human reproduction that is ultimately going to be deeply problematic for the “from conception” version of the pro-life position. Here we see reproduction laid bare as a cellular process which can use the core of any cell type as its instructional template (i.e. the DNA). Putting the complete copy of DNA into an egg (either by implanting a full copy from a skin cell, or via sperm) is like putting a construction worker into the cab of a bulldozer: shocking the cell to begin division is like turning the key on the machine. But the immediate result of this is not a building (i.e. a developing fetus), but rather a construction project which has barely even begun.
Pro-lifers may still try to characterize embryos as “early stage babies” but that increasingly off-kilter picture of things is only going to get harder and harder to maintain as more and more people digest the implications of these sorts of experiments.
It should already be clear to most people in the debate that DNA is not, by itself, a person: every skin cell, including those used in the experiment, contains a full copy of DNA, any instance of which is as much a “potential” human being as any other set of DNA. Indeed, one could theoretically fertilize an egg in the conventional fashion (with sperm) but then quickly swap that new DNA copy with skin cell DNA. Would this be murder? No: the embryo would simply continue to develop, the genetic differences encoded in the new DNA not asserting themselves until later.
So if we were to swap out every strand of DNA in your body with someone elses, you would not die or even change much (though there could be medical problems down the road): that is because “you,” the person, the being to which we ascribe moral interests and duties, are “you” because of the particular functional structures that were built as a result of that original construction process. You are not your DNA anymore than a recipe is a cake (and even following the same recipe will not ever produce the exact same cake).
So if DNA, whether unique or identical (as in natural twins or artificial clones), is not a person, why would DNA activated in a certain way inside a cell with particular structures be any more a person? We’ve come to ascribe moral rights and interests to people based on the sorts of beings they are: their ability to care about their own interests, have a sense of dignity about the disposition of their lives, to feel pain, to care about others. All of these functions require specific structures (most of them in the brain, or if, you like, souls tethered to those parts of the brain) that are unique and relevant to the moral rights in question. But they are not unique to all things that are genetically human. No skin cell in a body has them. And embryos do not have them. So there is little rational basis for insisting on moral rights for embryos in and of themselves.
What’s left is usually either exposed theology or slippery slope arguments. The former case is not really a topic for rational debate, but even the latter do not, I think hold up to scrutiny very well.
For instance, I’ve long tried to point out that sexual reproduction is a subset of asexual reproduction: new life still buds off of existing life with no discrete beginning or end. Sexual reproduction simply adds some gene jumbling to the process. Along these lines, this cloning research, together with phenomenon like parthenogenesis (i.e. virgin birth), further undermines the simplistic pro-life pretension of there being any obvious place to draw a line between supposedly morally worthless gametes (eggs and sperm) and the “fully human” embryo.