Ethics of Cloning: Is it a boon or bane?

Sheep

By Shireen Mathur, to fulfill the ethics in science requirement for the Young Scientist Program at BMSIS.


(Note: This post is an opinion piece concerning an issue with ethical implications within our communities. Opinions presented within this piece are those of the author and do not inherently represent those of Blue Marble Space, the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, or our affiliates.)


It is an undeniable fact that animals have always had a major contribution in the advancement of science and technology. Throughout history, science has relied on animals to perform experiments. There are various animal species whose names are engraved in the history of science due to their involvement in research, including C. elegans (a worm), D. melanogaster (fruit flies), and lab rats (there’s even a statue dedicated to the lab rats who’ve been used in research). 

One experiment that relied on an animal model was the first instance of animal cloning, which marked the birth of the famed sheep, Dolly. Cloning is a process of artificially producing genetically identical individuals of organisms or copies of identical DNA fragments. 

There are some people who justify cloning, arguing in some cases that it can help prevent the extinction of species or can lead to an increase in food production. Meanwhile, some others argue that it is a form of cruelty where the animals are treated as commodities alone, instead of living individuals with their own needs and nature. This poses a potential ethical issue as most of the time cloned animals die in gestation or at birth 1 2. Those that do survive often suffer physical abnormalities, severe and chronic pain, and other serious conditions 3 4. Thus a question arises as to; whether we should experiment with animals  in cloning research or if there should be alternatives for such research so that no life is  potentially harmed.


The positive aspects

From the perspective of those who are part of the research in cloning, Dolly’s birth was a milestone in biotechnology. Born on 5 July 1996 in Edinburgh, she was the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell. Her birth proved that specialized cells could be used to create a genetic copy of the animal they came from. Dolly’s successful birth compelled scientists to look at it as a light of hope for infertile and same-sex couples who want to have children. But an issue that is often ignored (or, at least, overlooked) is that such animal research raises the level of harm done to living beings. 

I believe that cloning violates the moral duties of humans. It subjects animals to suffering for advancement in research. But it is immoral to impose pain on others for the sake of their good. Using animals for experiments in research often subjects them to uncomfortable or even painful conditions. Often, when the experiment fails or even succeeds, it results in death or bodily harm. There are many cases where animals were euthanized after completion of an experiment (for instance, some test animals are no longer considered of value due to having already been used in an experiment). And for test animals, in cloning as well as other experiments, the effects of experiments are sometimes irreversible, which may leave the animals with lifelong defects.


It is ethically wrong

After the successful cloning of Dolly, the continued cloning of organisms has become almost common. To date, many animal species have been cloned. Despite the potential beneficial outcomes of such research, there has been little discussion on the ethical implications of this work. One of the reasons for the neglect of this issue is that we as a society have not yet decided upon the status of animals and their proper treatment. 

In my opinion, the simplest approach to study the ethics of cloning, whether it is animal or human, is zoo-centrism. Zoo-centrism holds that all animal lives are moral subjects, including humans. 

The justification for this approach states that animals are capable of experiencing pain and so they should be considered moral subjects. During the process of cloning, animals may experience different forms of pain and suffering. Surrogate animals can undergo various complications during the procedures, the health of cloned animals is at risk, and, if cloned, suffering animals are forced to exhibit for research purposes. Another pressing concern is that, as cloning techniques are being perfected in primates, it may only be a matter of time until human cloning may occur. (Note: despite much press at the time, the claim in 2004 that a group led by Dr. Hwang Woo-suk in South Korea had cloned a human embryo has since been revealed to have no confirmed support

Similar to animals, humans too will have to go through such distressing experiences leaving them with potential side-effects which could last for life or may even cause death. Even if a human voluntarily agrees for such experiments, it can be risky for one’s health and it may have lifelong effects, both emotionally and physically. There have already been reports about experimentation in human reproductive cloning using animal cloning techniques 5 6. These developments provide clear evidence for the need to raise the issue of ethics in cloning on an international level and impose a ban on human cloning. 

I believe that cloning interferes with the natural phenomenon of birth. By engaging in such activity, we dehumanize ourselves and discredit the natural world. Cloning nullifies the value of animal life by objectifying it. It is unethical to use animals as commodities and ignore their status as living beings just like humans. These ideas suggest that even though cloning has advantages, it is an act of recklessness and negligence.


Implications

There’s a need to maintain ethical standards regarding the use of animals in any kind of research. Studies have suggested that the use of animals should be based on a properly planned analysis where researchers should follow a set of principles so that animal use can be avoided or minimized and such that the animal experiences less stress or pain. Those who support the use of animals in research for the benefit of humankind often fail to notice that this is just objectification of animals for the sake of research (or they believe that the objectification of animals in this manner is ethically acceptable). 

I think there’s a need to ask people to see this from the perspective of humanity,  in how we humans force animals into such miserable experiences, and, if this research continues, humans may likely be harmed in the same way as well. No research should be conducted by risking a life, be it animal life or any other form of life. The only way to find a conclusion to this argument is to think about the good and bad in every research experiment or endeavor, have a clear motivation for the research, and analyse the potential results and consequences of the research. Some governments around the world have already taken a step in this context by banning the use of live animals in schools and colleges for biology experiments. There’s a need to take this issue to the global level and think of animals and humans as equals.

Science is taking a new form every day. It is our curiosity that drives us to explore the unexplored, but we must make sure that no advancement comes at the stake of animal life.


Shireen Mathur is an undergraduate student studying aerospace engineering at Amity University Mumbai, India, and she is a Research Associate in the BMSIS Young Scientist Program. She’s interested in astrophysics and enjoys reading books in her spare time.