Prof. Arthur Schafer, head of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. (photo from Arthur Schafer)
After a few Chinese researchers recently released a report about their successful cloning of monkeys, the ethics debate about both cloning and the use of monkeys for research reignited.
“It’s not the first time primates have been cloned,” University of Manitoba philosophy professor Arthur Schafer told the Independent, “but it is the first time it has been done by this method.”
A primate is a zoological classification for mammals such as humans, apes and monkeys that are distinguished by, among other things, higher intelligence than other animals.
“The method previously used for cloning primates was called ‘embryo splitting.’ That’s what happens when a mother has identical twins,” explained Schafer, who heads the Center for Professional and Applied Ethics at the U of M and lectures on the ethics of cloning. “The method they used [in China] is called ‘the Dolly Method,’ named after the famous cloning of Dolly the Sheep. Dolly the Sheep was cloned from the breast tissue of the animal being cloned. (Dolly was named after Dolly Parton.) They used an adult cell.”
An advantage of this method over the cell-splitting technique is that you have the potential of getting many more clones, said Schafer. With cell-splitting, you can only get two.
With respect to the ethics of cloning and of using monkeys for research, Schafer said, “The first point is that the success rate is very low – two out of 60. They produced a number of additional embryos that didn’t result in live births or healthy animals.
“With Dolly the Sheep, the success rate was even lower…. Well over 200 clones of Dolly were produced to get one successful live birth of a healthy Dolly clone.”
Another important question is whether or not this research will make human cloning more likely. At present, a major reason why creating a human clone would be unethical is because the chances of the baby being born severely impaired physically or mentally are very high. “No ethical physician would want to use this as reproductive technology or would participate in it, because the chances of getting a healthy baby would be small,” said Schafer.
He said, “The technology will get better and better and could, eventually, maybe in the not-too-distant future, be safe and effective. And, at that point, it might become a viable way for a couple to have a baby. So, if you think this reproductive technology is ethically objectionable for humans, then you’d be opposed to primate experimentation on those grounds.”
For those whose primary objection to human cloning “is that it’s ineffective and unsafe” and “that you have a lot of stillborn babies and that those born alive would have a high chance of being severely impaired,” improvements of the technology could be a reason for primate testing.
Schafer said that human reproductive cloning could become as effective as in vitro fertilization (IVF).
“People got very irate in 1978 when a baby was born by IVF,” he said. “They thought this was a method that was morally wrong – a crime against the baby, against society. But somehow, it is turning out to be not so unsafe, not significantly less safe than natural childbirth. And it can enable, maybe a couple million couples, to have babies who wouldn’t otherwise be able to.”
Schafer postulated that, just as IVF is no longer on the current ethics chopping block, so too cloning may someday reach the point of being considered safe enough to be an acceptable reproduction method.
“The whole debate is about if it is unethical and, if yes, why?” said Schafer. “I think everyone agrees that safety and effectiveness is critical. But, once we get beyond that, some feel it is a case of playing God.”
Currently, human cloning research will land you in prison. But, animal cloning research is allowed in some countries on the grounds that it is for the purpose of making higher-producing animals – a chicken that can lay more eggs, for example, or a cow that can produce more milk or is better at putting on meat. Cloning research for such purposes has been allowed and has been given large financial resources.
“So, where it’s permitted, the rationale is that this technology will enable us to do medical research and to advance scientific knowledge in a way that will improve the quality of lives,” said Schafer. “It’s a matter of weighing and balancing your hope for benefit against your fear of repercussions.
“In discussions I’ve had with Jewish authorities, who although are divided amongst themselves, the predominant strand stresses that one value trumps all others – that being human life. So, you could use that as the basis for an argument that any technology that would hold promise of saving human lives would be favoured by Judaism.”
There is still the concern about conducting research on monkeys.
“Many people, and not just animal rights advocates, regard primates as the last animals, eligible animals, for experimentation,” said Schafer. “They are the most intelligent, the most like us. They have highly developed brains and nervous systems. They are, in many ways, more intelligent than human beings who are impaired or adults who have dementia or are in a vegetative state. We don’t allow medical research on severely cognitively impaired human beings, so how could it be ethical to do research on these closest relatives in the animal world, primates?”
Schafer said there has been a drastic decline in the amount of research done on primates in general, and monkeys in particular.
“You can’t justify the risks of severe harm on primates,” said Schafer. “Either they shouldn’t be used at all or, a compromise position, they should only be used as a last recourse for medical research – only used when incredibly necessary and for a supremely important goal.”
It is on these lines that scientists justify some of the research being done on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“They believe this technology will allow them to produce animal models that will facilitate research on diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” said Schafer. “So, do we need to do this research? Are there other better alternatives? Is the moral [price of] experimenting on primates too high to justify the medical benefits it hopes to achieve? These are all issues that are critical to the debate.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.