11/19/2004, 00.00
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Human cloning, science's dominion over life

by Lorenzo Fazzini
Scientists dream of 'headless humans' from whom they can remove tissues to treat the sick. As the UN gets ready to vote on human cloning, Prof Augusto Pessina, microbiologist at the Università di Milano, spoke to AsiaNews about the false myths of 'therapeutic' cloning and the economic interests that are behind the humanitarian emphasis of science. The Church has a duty to speak out against the claims of scientific research.

Milan (AsiaNews) – One of the most recent possibilities of genetic science was discussed in a medical congress in India: creating a 'headless human'. Manipulating the human embryo makes it in fact possible now to create a human being without a nervous system who can serve as an organ farm for research, this thanks to human cloning.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Prof Augusto Pessina Pessina, vice-president of the Italian Cellular Cultures Association and a member of the European Tissue Culture Society, said: "It's just too horrible to contemplate".

Behind the debate over cloning lies humanity's desire to "master human life". Like some golem, the headless human is but an example of this titanic will to power.

Today the United Nations will vote on a total ban on human cloning. The proposal is backed by 64 member states, but another 20 members want to allow therapeutic cloning. However, according to Professor Pessina, the latter "is in no way different from reproductive cloning. Cloning for reproduction and medical treatment are one and the same."

"I know what I am talking about," he said, "because I deal with embryos and cells every day in the lab. Cloning to heal always means manipulating human life" because "an embryo is a psychically whole organism".

In this interview Professor Pessina describes the disturbing possibilities of so-called therapeutic cloning.

What will come out of today's UN vote on human cloning?

I hope that the international community will come out against the use of human embryos. By splitting hairs over 'reproductive' versus 'experimental' cloning—a distinction that is absolutely non existent—we end up simply accepting cloning. Moreover, from a biological point of view, it is simply unacceptable to speak of 'therapeutic cloning'.

Why is there no difference between reproductive and experimental or 'therapeutic' cloning?

The only difference is one of purpose. If I clone a human embryo not knowing whether I am doing it for reproductive reasons or not, what do I do with it once created? Do I let grow into a human being or do I just get rid of it? The difference between 'reproductive' and 'therapeutic' simply means choosing between creating a person or destroying him or her.

First of all, manipulating human life raises ethical questions.

I'll answer with an example. In early November a meeting of scientists and geneticists was held in New Delhi. The discussion centred on the great scientific successes against mortality in the world. Biotechnologists' dream of the headless human was presented as a possibility. In fact, it is possible to manipulate the genes of a cloned embryo so that it would develop without a nervous system. We would then have a bunch of organs (heart, lungs, skin, etc.) that could be used for scientific research. It would be, in other words, an organ farm. Would it be acceptable to use a human without nervous system as a dispensary for tissues and organs? It would be possible, but you know . . .

But those who are in favour of 'therapeutic' cloning claim that embryos are useful in medical treatment . . . 

Let us first agree as to what we mean by therapy. According to the Helsinki Human Rights Treaty therapy is an acceptable harm done to the whole person for the purpose of a greater good. 'Therapeutic cloning' means extinguished one life to save another.  If so, therapy would mean taking a life to heal another. Why not then use death row inmates, other prisoners, seriously disabled people to heal the sick?

The ongoing debate on cloning and the use of embryonic cells overlooks adult stem cells whose use does not raise ethical questions. Why the silence on this medical and therapeutic treatment?

First of all, there is a mistake that clouds the debate over embryonic cells and adult stem cells.  It is incorrect to speak of embryonic stem cells. By definition, only adult stem cells are stem cells. They are the ones in our body that can regenerate tissue. Embryos are said to have stem potential, that at a biological level they can become anything. Yes, but hold on! I can decide to turn an embryo into either John or Jane or in a tonne of skin or organs. Embryonic cells are potentially but not actually stem cells. An embryo is a cell that gives birth to a person who is psychically and organically whole. When we speak of embryonic stem cells we are talking about a stage in life—it is already human life—that we can choose to manipulate and turn into something else. Some say that it is alright to manipulate an embryo to make a tonne of organs rather than John or Jane. I say it is not.

Back to the previous question. Why this silence over the use of adult stem cells and their therapeutic potential?

It is a lie to say that adult stem cells are not useful. Today we can treat many illnesses with these cells. For example, adult stem cells were used in treating a man who suffered a heart attack. But no one pointed out that these cells were taken from the man's own bone marrow in a simple operation. Instead, many media outlets claimed that the operation was done with embryonic cells. This shows that there is a deliberate attempt to confuse people and spread lies.

The evidence presented in scientific journals now suggests that adult stem cells can be used in treating many illnesses: reconstructing the cornea, bones, cartilage, burnt skin. But, there is no shred of evidence in the scientific literature that embryonic cells are reliable.

We should instead study them more and apply the research methods used in drug trials and scientific experiments, using animals for instance. In fact, let us say that I am in favour of embryonic cell research. I would still have to follow the scientific method and show that embryonic cells work on animals before I can apply them to humans. It is clear that today adult stem cells have proven their scientific worth.

Is this desire to study human embryos a cover for economic interests?

Yes! But I think that behind the whole thing there is an even greater reason that we tend to forget, namely that humans want to master life and have dominion over themselves. I am convinced that there are many people who, notwithstanding any economic considerations, believe in good faith that cloning research should go ahead because they think it is right that humans be masters of their own lives. In addition, there are strong economic interests. Many companies are ready to use and sell tissue and human embryos to hospitals, to test drugs, to use in research. There is a German company in Mainz that has already applied for a patent on cellular lines from embryos with the European Patent Office. The Office turned it down but it shows that the whole thing is becoming a business.

In the UN debate the Catholic Church has called for an "ethically responsible" use of science. Is religion the only way to ensure that scientific research is ethical and responsible towards humans?

A ban on cloning is not a religious question; it involves our humanity. Irrespective of any religious considerations, we should ask ourselves as humans whether it is right to do so. Even Prof Angelo Vescovi, co-director of the Stem Cell Research Institute at the S. Raffaele Hospital in Milan, a scientist and an agnostic, said that the Church is alone in defending humans against scientific research. The Church does not want to defend humans because they are Catholic. The embryo the Church wants to protect could become a Muslim man or a Buddhist woman. That is not what matters. The Church loves humans for what they are, not for its own self-interest.

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See also
Kyoto University scientists break stem cell safety barriers
Authorities deny Hwang Woo-suk the right to conduct research on human embryos
Leading cloning scientists in Seoul for "secret experiments"
Korean Church against Bioethics committee and embryonic stem cell research
Korean bishops urge prayers for national unity and Christian rebirth


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