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Mohler debates cloning on television program

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Both therapeutic and reproductive cloning involve the taking of a human life and should be banned, R. Albert Mohler Jr. said on a television panel recently.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president made his comments April 29 on the hour-long public affairs program “Kentucky Tonight,” which is broadcast on Kentucky Educational Television.

The panel debated the ethical and political issues surrounding therapeutic cloning, which Mohler says must be banned. He said he supports the Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), which would ban all forms of human cloning. President Bush has said he backs the Brownback-Landrieu version.

“I wholeheartedly support the president’s position and the legislative proposals — including the Brownback bill in the U.S. Senate,” Mohler said. “I think anything less than that is a violation of human dignity and an assault upon what it really means to be human.

“The issue really is whether or not that embryo is human life and deserving of full protection. The problem with any other assumption is that from that point on the beginning point of human life … is endlessly negotiable.”

Therapeutic cloning involves several stages, the first of which requires the removal of an egg’s genetic material. After that the genetic material of a human cell — which is taken from the person who is to be cloned — is removed and inserted into the egg. A jolt of electricity begins cell division, thus producing an embryo. A sperm is not needed for human cloning.

The procedure is called “somatic cell nuclear transplantation” by some, and differs only from reproductive cloning in that the embryo is not implanted into a mother’s womb. Many scientists support therapeutic cloning because of the stem cells that can be derived from embryos and used for research. However, the embryo must be destroyed in order to harvest the stem cells.

While therapeutic cloning is taking place in some industrialized countries, reproductive cloning is banned in most. The United States has yet to ban either type of cloning.

“It is an artificial distinction between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning … at least in how the embryo was created or how the zygote comes to be,” Mohler said. “The use of it may be somewhat different but the technology is the same.

“I reject the fact that you can do the one (therapeutic cloning) without eventually leading to the other (reproductive) … The ultimate issue is whether human life is worthy of such respect that there are certain technologies that we cannot and must not use. I believe this is one of those.”

Joining Mohler on the panel were Lisa Wilson Davison, a professor at Lexington Theological Seminary; David Hager, a physician at the Women’s Care Center in Lexington; and Del Collins, associate vice president for research and graduate studies and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Kentucky. Davison and Collins supported therapeutic cloning, Hager opposed it.

Mohler said that while he opposes embryonic stem cell research, he supports research on adult stem cells, which can be derived from cells within the adult body and do not require the use of embryos.

Much of the program was devoted to the definition of human life.

Collins argued that scientists “are not making babies.” He said therapeutic cloning involves “100 or 200 individual cells, and they don’t become an individual until about 14 days into the process. … They never get into the uterus. The are in a dish or they are frozen.”

Davison agreed, saying that her father, who died from Alzheimer’s disease, could have benefited from therapeutic cloning.

“To think that perhaps someday I could have donated one of my egg cells — of all the many that I have that I’m not using currently — to help cure my father, I don’t call that immoral at all,” she said. “I don’t choose to have children, so those egg cells aren’t doing anything reproductive at this point.”

Mohler, though, reminded the panel that every person began in the tiniest of forms.

“Everyone of us, we must admit, began as a zygote,” he said, referring to the very first stage of human life. “The fact is that this technology calls for zygotes to be created in order to be destroyed.”

That point was underscored later in the show, when a caller suggested that the ethics of research should be left to scientists and not theologians.

“Even our caller … began as a clump of cells,” Mohler said. “Frankly, had that been terminated, and had that clump of cells been destroyed, he would not be here. So we need to go back and say (that) this isn’t purely an artificial conversation. Every single one of us began life this way. If human life is negotiable at this point … then we’re going to see a further negotiation of this away.”

The word “conception,” Mohler pointed out, must be used with clarity. While some refer to “conception” as the fertilization of an egg by a sperm, proponents of abortion and embryo research use the word to mean something else — the successful implantation of an embryo into the uterine wall.

“When I say conception, I mean the exchange of chromosomal information there at the very beginning,” he said. “But there are physicians who speak of conception as the successful implantation of a living embryo in the womb. There’s a critical distinction there.

“We have this new language of embryo-like entity and pre-embryo. From a moral perspective, that’s very artificial.”

Collins, though, took exception to Mohler’s argument.

“The pre-embryo term was used 50 years ago, and you are the ones who have tried to make that go away,” he said to Mohler. “The truth is that you do not have an individual when you have a bundle of stem cells. Each one of those 200 stem cells could be an individual theoretically. Therefore, that is not an individual. It does not have a soul.”

Collins added, “My god tells me that I have to do what I can to make things better.”

Mohler responded by asking Collins, “So there are no moral limitations to medical research?”

“My moral limitation to it,” Collins answered, “is that the person that we are treating has as much right as the … cells that we use to treat that individual. I also think it’s immoral for groups of people to try to inhibit the kind of research that can bring those therapies to fruition.”

Mohler again asked Collins, “So there’s no technology that is inherently wrong?”

Collins finally responded, “There is no technology that I know of that is inherently wrong.”

Later in the show, Collins did say that stem cell research should be regulated and that embryos should be “treated with respect.” But he stuck to his earlier argument, saying that research “is neither good nor evil.” He also asked the panel why the thousands of frozen ovum (or embryos) in the United States could not be used for research.

Those frozen embryos, Mohler said, “are frozen human beings.”

Noting the sharp division on the panel, Mohler said that both sides must make their best arguments.

“In public policy, this is going to go one way or another,” he said. “(But) it’s not the only issue that is that way. With abortion, it’s either going to be legal or it’s not going to be legal. When it comes to this issue, one side’s going to win in terms of the public policy debate. We need each side to bring its best arguments and then the political process will do its work.”

After those arguments are made, the public will oppose all forms of cloning, Mohler added.

“There is on the part of the American people now an instinctive rejection of the idea of cloning in any form,” he said. “It is what (Council on Bioethics Chairman) Leon Kass calls the wisdom of repugnance. We’re going to have to have a deeper conversation. Then I’ll hope they’ll come to an even deeper conviction that that is so.”

This show can be viewed on the Internet at: http://www.ket.org/cgi/db/ket/dmps/Programs?id=KYTO0928.

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  • Michael Foust