THE stuff of grocery-store tabloids has finally hit more-respectable front pages with recent reports of the successful cloning of human embryos.
This development is a stark reminder that more-careful thought is needed about the direction biotechnology, as applied to human reproduction, is taking society. At a minimum the experiment's results make it mandatory to draw up ethics guidelines to cover further research on cloning human embryos and ultimately on the technique's application.
To their credit, medical organizations such as the American Fertility Society are trying to do just that. But guidelines should be international; too much divergence of opinion on human-embryo cloning exists to set parameters on an institutional or even a national basis.
The work at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., involved cloning 17 human embryos, ranging from two cells to eight cells, into 48 embryos. The idea was to find a way to help infertile couples who turn to in vitro fertilization to have children. Only two of the 48 clones survived to a point where they could be considered for implanting in a uterus, leading the researchers to conclude that the procedure is not yet feasible. The work was done with embryos that researchers had determined could not survive long in any case.
We understand the depth and strength of the desire among many couples to raise a family, which leads some to the point where they submit to the emotional, physical, and financial ordeal of in vitro fertilization techniques when natural methods have failed.
Seeking new approaches to help couples diagnosed as infertile stems from a noble motive. Yet in trying to achieve that goal, researchers are developing techniques that come ever closer to giving mankind the ability to manipulate at will the most fundamental building blocks of human existence.
The issue of cloning human embryos cannot be lightly or disdainfully brushed aside; it touches deeply held views of human identity and individuality. The need for guidelines is strong enough when such work is done under the rubric of basic research, when the quest is for knowledge for its own sake. The need is even greater when the work falls into the category of applied research with potential commercial appeal.