Dr. Woo Suk Hwang and his team at the veterinary college of Seoul University recently made public having cloned a human embryo. From 16 women they had collected 242 eggs and removed their nuclei. Taking ordinary cells from the women they produced 176 cloned embryos by fusing those cells with the eggs. Thirty of those embryos survived to be 4-6 days old when they formed blastocysts, the stage when an embryo has just begun to form the different organs of the body and when it would normally implant.
From those 30 remaining embryos they were able to get just one to yield its inner cell mass. The inner cell mass would normally go on to become a foetus. They took 100 cells and implanted them in mice where they developed as teratomas, a kind of cancer. Subsequent analysis of those cancers showed that a variety of cells could be identified from each of the cell groups of early human development - endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm.
Scientifically this was no great achievement. The techniques used had all been pioneered before in animals. What was different was the application to human beings. The scientists themselves acknowledge, in their report, the need to carry this process forward to birth in non-human primates in order to fully assess it.
Media reports hailed this as a breakthrough development towards cures for incurable neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. This is despite the fact that no reputable neurologist made any such claim. Alzheimer's is a global brain disorder and not resolvable by adding new cells. Patients’ own stem cells have already been used to treat Parkinson's disease to the extent that they form new brain cells that can produce the dopamine that the patients lack.
On the evidence it would appear that embryonic stem cells are less likely to produce therapeutic results. All the success so far has been with a patient's own stem cells, mostly those obtained from the bone marrow. These have been shown to be capable of producing all cell types. Unlike embryonic stem cells they are more controllable. Once taken from the embryo in which their development is programmed, embryonic stem cells are much more proliferative than other cells, but their development is wild. The transplant results have been cancers, as in the Korean experiment.
The media fuss made reflects the social not the scientific significance of what was done. The women involved had reproduced without male involvement. In each case, an embryonic human being had been produced, the offspring of a single woman produced from her cells alone.
What the Korean veterinary team did would be a criminal offence in Australia under uniform (2002) State and Commonwealth law. The offspring of the women involved were produced in order to be destroyed. There is, however, some support for doing this and voices of various Australian scientists involved in research on embryos (not those involved in therapeutic medicine), were heard hailing the development. The pioneer of cloning, Ian Wilmut, made a statement in support and even suggested that producing cloned babies would be desirable under certain circumstances such as preventing genetic disease.
The social significance of this technology is not restricted to the possibility that cloned children might result. The fact that they would be born with a threatened identity, a narcissistic genetically identical sibling instead of natural parents, and all the risks of a technology that so far has produced only diseased animals with defective immune systems is significant. Significant, too, is the fear that women may be exploited in order to obtain their eggs for cloning purposes.
But there is an even deeper an issue that goes to the heart of democratic principles.
In contemporary Australian politics, democracy has come to mean flip-flop populism and politicians pandering to the tyranny of majority rule. But democracy is meant to be rule not only by the people but also for the people. The most shocking recent abrogation of democratic principles in the name of the tyranny of populism is the bipartisan support for incarcerating innocent children of asylum seekers behind razor wire as a means of punishment to deter others from seeking asylum by unlawful entry.
The democratic principles involved are those foundation principles that recognise each human being as the bearer of equal and inalienable rights, the principles that make any kind of discrimination wrong, the principles that protect minorities and the marginalized from majority exclusion, rejection and persecution.
The Korean experiment created embryonic members of the human family for destructive use. No matter what putative benefits might be claimed for the future by such experiments, the social significance is to undermine a cornerstone of who we are as a human society. In a democratic society each individual member possesses a worth and dignity that is not based on how well we function, our attributes, our contribution, but on the simple fact that we belong to the human family. Each of us carries an inheritance of human genes containing the inherent radical capacity for reason, for enquiry, for wonderment and for love that is so distinctive of our species. By manufacturing embryonic members of the human family for disposal we are all diminished.
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