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Cloning as a substitute for transplants

Thousands of patients are waiting for a medical solution that cloning technology may provide them

By Verdit Ravitzky and Gali Ben-Or

The fear of misuse accompanies every aspect of our lives. A kitchen knife is used to murder women by their husbands - should we outlaw kitchen knives? Cars involved in traffic accidents in which people are killed - shall we give them up?

Following the announcement by American scientists in recent days about the cloning of the first human embryo, the stormy public debate regarding the dangers inherent in human cloning has reopened. In this discussion, the mistaken impression was created that the distinction between cloning for the purpose of procreation and cloning for the purpose of research and healing is artificial and therefore all cloning should be prohibited.

When cloning is treated as a first step on the way to the birth of a person, moral questions arise concerning, for example, the family lineage of the cloned person, or the fear of creating "children by order". We do not yet have complete answers to these questions.

The situation is different when cloning technology is used to create a pre-embryo for research and healing purposes. In this case, the embryo is allowed to develop only to a very initial stage of individual and identical "stem cells".
This is the most initial stage, which is carried out outside the womb in a test tube. At this stage, the differentiation process has not yet begun, in which each group of cells assumes a specific role leading to the development of the various organs. Only given the correct genetic command will each of them know their role: one will develop into a nerve cell, one into a brain cell, one into a muscle cell.

The scientists aim to decipher the mechanism that causes cell differentiation. Understanding this mechanism will allow the use of stem cells for the repair and healing of damaged tissues. Thus, it will be possible to treat a kidney patient by creating kidney cells that will be transplanted back into his body and "repair" the damaged kidney.

In the more distant future, it may even be possible to create a complete organ intended for transplantation. This will avoid the difficult moral problems associated with transplantation from the dead (the issue of brain death, for example) and transplantation from animals (trafficking in organs, family pressure) as well as medical problems associated with rejection of the transplant. A kidney created by using stem cells will not be rejected by the transplanted body, because it will be genetically identical to it. Tens of thousands of patients are currently waiting for an answer that may lie in cloning technology research.

In the background of the current political and media debate regarding cloning, there is currently a philosophical discussion about the moral status of pre-embryos and the meaning of the term "potential for human life". Some argue that embryonic stem cell research violates human dignity. Claims in this spirit give a moral status to the accumulation of microscopic cells and lead to the imposition of a blanket ban on the field that holds great promise for saving lives.

The law in Israel establishes a complete ban on any action aimed at "creating a whole person...identical to another". That is, in Israel there is already a ban on cloning for the purposes of reproduction and procreation. However, the law does not prohibit cloning for the purposes of medical research for the purposes of healing and experiments. Requests to conduct experiments on humans are discussed and approved by special ethical committees.

Imposing a blanket ban on all uses of cloning technology would be a hasty and misguided step. It is appropriate, at this stage, to allow research into cloning aimed at healing, under strict supervision and while establishing clear rules, and at the same time, to prohibit cloning for the purpose of procreation, until the questions that arise in this context are examined in depth.

Verdit Ravitzky is a doctoral student in bioethics at Bar-Ilan University; Gali Ben-Or is an officer in the Counseling and Legislation Department at the Ministry of Justice (what is stated in the article is her personal opinion and is not the position of the Ministry of Justice)

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