No, there is too much moral uncertainty


Was La Jolla company right to clone?

On Jan. 17, Stemagen, a La Jolla company devoted to stem cell research, announced that it had produced “human blastocyst stage embryos” using a method of cloning. The news, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal “Stem Cells,” was received with sharply mixed reactions around the world.

Because the process carries enormous potential to heal even as it produces and destroys embryonic human life, it is fraught with ethical questions.

In an attempt to wrestle with the world-wide ethical questions raised by this local work, the Light asked two ethics professionals to write essays exploring and clarifying the moral issues involved in Stemagen’s work.

By Terence McGoldrick

At the outset I would like to say that in my time serving on the Sripps Research Institute’s IRB for research on human subjects, I have come to appreciate the high level of concern for ethics in research in the scientific community. My position is as a person of faith, not unfamiliar with the science, who would like to explain some of the problematic implications of cloning a human embryo in a Petri dish from human skin and egg cells.

The concerns for human cloning all boil down to a very important belief in the dignity of every human life. It may seem incredible to this generation that recent history is full of debates about the full humanity and human rights of Indians, blacks, non-Arian races or prisoners. In every case there was some great good to be defended and promoted at the expense of those persons. It was not so long ago at Yalta, when Churchill asked Stalin, “Did you really kill 20 million of your own people?” Stalin answered, “Yes, I had to do it.”

And the Soviets didn’t even get that new world they sacrificed all those lives to build!

The belief in the dignity of every human life is a cornerstone for civilized society. If this were something truly self-evident and did not need to be defended, there would never have been all those rationalizations that have murdered millions.

This is the first concern with cloning human embryos. Is this a new kind of human sacrifice in the name of some greater good? Especially since WW II, most people are in complete agreement that every human life should be protected, yet this value cannot and does not exist by some version of civic laisser-faire. It must also be protected by laws, propagated in a myriad of ways throughout the human family, taught in our schools, commemorated and explained again and again.

If one believes that all human life is sacred, the first question that Stemagen’s achievement raises is what is in the Petri dish? I can’t prove it is a human person, and you can’t prove it is not.

The believer looks at the developing human life and says, “It is a wonder caused by something much greater, divine, spiritual, a process that can’t be achieved by physical laws alone.” The non-believer looks at the same process and says, “It is doing it on its own -- just look!”

Is it a human embryo only in potency, or is it fully human with all the rights of any person? Herein lays the real crux of the moral and ethical concerns with such scientific creations. If we don’t know for sure whether this is a human being, then we shouldn’t risk harming a person, just as we would accuse a man of manslaughter if he bulldozed an abandoned home and killed a homeless man living inside. The possibility of harming an innocent person is enough to prohibit both creating and destroying cloned embryos for whatever promised and unknown benefit that may be sought.

What is in the Petri dish? When and how does ensoulement occur? It is conceivable that a paradigm shift may be necessary in our understanding of human life’s development. Earlier historical notions of life beginning at quickening, several months into pregnancy, were abandoned with the discovery of human reproduction at a microscopic level. The Aristotelian theory of the soul, which has been the basis of Christianity’s belief in the human soul for centuries, defines the soul as “the form of a physical body apt to receive it.”

Since the human soul is perfect, as a spiritual entity, it is understood as the cause of all the developmental processes from conception to birth. The mother and father supply the materials, the DNA is the blueprint, but the soul is the animating cause of the coming to be of the human person. It is the cause of consciousness, thought and love.

If the embryo in the Petri dish isn’t human, what else could it be?

Of all arguments, I still find after years of turning this over in my mind, the most patent argument is that if we don’t know for sure what is in the Petri dish, then our imperative values - respect for persons, dignity and sanctity of human life - would command us not to clone or destroy these human creations even at the earliest stages, for all the same reasons we don’t permit experimentation on embryos, albeit they do not have legal personhood. And besides, the great medical benefits promised us and our children by stem cell research can be sought with research on stem cells obtained without destroying embryos, so there is no need to do so.

Dr. Terence McGoldrick is the founder and principal of T.A. McGoldrick & Associates. He has focused on the issue of ethics in public policy for more than 20 years in Europe and America as a researcher, academician and advisor. His is educated in theology, ethics and public policy. He teaches ethics in the Business School and in the theology department at the University of San Diego. He can be reached at