ethics in science and technology

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Ethics and Cloned Animals

Animal cloning has once again become a live issue with votes in the European Parliament and controversy over the presence of cloned cattle in the UK, which seems to have bypassed the regulatory requirements of the Food Standards Agency. What of the ethics? It prompts us to ask questions about the way we are using animals with new technology, and the kinds of assumptions we make. But this was not what cloning was originally developed for. First back to Dolly for a quick word ...

Different Uses of Animal Cloning

Dolly's Legacy in Animal Cloning

Well, Dolly is now a stuffed exhibit in the Royal Museum of Scotland, but she remains the most famous sheep in the world. Scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh rewrote the laws of biology in 1996 to produce a new genetic copy animal from adult cells taken from an existing sheep. Her announcement in February 1997 led to an unprecedented media circus which caused as much confusion as it shed light. The attention focused mainly on speculations about the possibility, or otherwise, of cloning humans. In doing so, it missed the much more immediate impact of this work on how we use animals.

Cloning had already been done to a limited degree by splitting embryos, mostly in cattle, and raised ethical and welfare concerns in the process. But the Roslin work opens up the prospect of a far wider range of applications from adult animal cells, which has been extended to numerous other species, often with signficant animal welfare problems. It remains uncertain whether these cloning methods are able to work consistently without adverse effects.

Cloning to make Pharmaceuticals in Animal Milk

The original aim of Roslin's nuclear transfer cloning work was to find more precise methods by genetically modifying sheep to produce proteins of therapeutic value in their milk. This was being done by 'conventional' microinjection of DNA into an embryo and was very inefficient. Cloning was just a tool to enable Roslin to grow live animals from selected genetically modified modified cells, and to do more targeted modifications.

The much less well known transgenic cloned sheep Polly in 1997 marked the first evidence of this principle. The fact it was a clone was a side-issue. The aim was to clone 5-10 animals like this from a single genetically modified cell line, but then breed them naturally, as "founders" of a set of lines of genetically modified animals. There would be no advantage in cloning beyond the first point. The spin-off company PPL Therapeutics sought to commercialise the work but eventually went bust before the clinical trials could be completed. This original use of cloning has largely ceased.

Cloning Rare and Endangered Breeds

Another use of cloning could be to maintain the genetic material from endangered species. Cells from rare breeds might be stored in a biobank to be available to use cloning techniques to ‘recreate’ animals in case of sudden disease outbreaks or natural disasters that would otherwise decimate irreplaceable stocks.

Cloning for Faster Livestock Breeding

But the application that has caught so much attention recently is to use cloning to speed up of convential animal breeding. This is on a much larger scale than medical applications or rare breeds. Imagine you are a commercial breeder of cows or pigs, and over many generations you have bred some fine and valuable beasts with highly desirable characteristics. It was immediately reaslised that the Dolly method could be used to clone such animals from the cells of one of them, and sell the cloned animals to "finishers" - those farmers who simply feed up the animals for slaughter, rather than breed them to produce more stock. Again, the breeder might want to clone a series of promising animals in a breeding programme, in order to test how the same "genotype" responded to different environmental changes.

Ethics and Animal Cloning

Should this be allowed ethically? To look at this, here are several possible criteria - unnaturalness, diversity, fundamental concerns, animal welfare and commodification.

Is it Unnatural?

Many people say that cloning farm animals would be unnatural. Whereas in the plant kingdom cloning is a fairly common phenomenon, there are few animal examples and none in mammals or humans. Should we then respect this biological distinction, or should we celebrate our human capacity to override such limitations? It is hard to argue in an absolute sense that anything is unnatural, when so little remains around us that we might justifiably call natural, and nature itself is in constant motion. Yet many believe some technological inventions are now going too far to remain in tune with what we perceive "natural" to mean, despite how much we have intervened in nature to date. Is cloning animals a point to draw a line?

Would it Narrow Genetic Diversity too far?

This brings us to the question of diversity. One of the fundamental rules of selective breeding is that you must maintain a high enough level of genetic variation. The more you narrow down the genetic "pool" to a limited number of lines of, say, animals for meat or milk production, the more you run risks of problems from in-breeding. If that is the case with breeding, how much more is it true of cloning, where genetic replicas are involved. This means there are pragmatic limits to how useful cloning would be, but beneath the pragmatics there lies a deeper ethical concern. Does this reflect something fundamental about the nature of things?

Is There a Fundamental Ethical Concern?

This is something for which Christian theology provides some insights. For the Christian, the world around us is God's creation, and one of its most characteristic features is variety. The biblical writers make repeated allusions to it, painting striking pictures of a creation whose very diversity is a cause of praise to its creator. It could be argued that to produce replica humans or animals on demand would be to go against something basic and God-given about the very nature of higher forms of life. Where God evolves a system of boundless possibilities which works by diversification, is it typically human to select out certain functions we think are the best, and replicate them? Deliberate cloning aims at predictability, replication, in order to exercise control, whose centralised, even totalitarian approach contrasts with God's command to animals and humans to "be fruitful and multiply". In the limit this argument would mean that cloning would be absolutely wrong, no matter what it was being used for. This intuition runs deep in many people. But there are also questions of scale and intention to consider.

Justifiable Uses of Cloning?

Cloning animals might be acceptable in the limited context of research or, where the main intention was not the clone as such but growing an animal of a known genetic composition, where natural methods would not work. Roslin's early work to produce Polly the transgenic cloned sheep was such a case, where the intention is not primarily to clone, but to find more precise ways of animal genetic engineering. Indeed, producing medically useful proteins in sheep's milk is one of the least contentious genetic modifications in animals, since the intervention in the animal is very small for a considerable human benefit. Careful scrutiny would be needed, to see that it was only applied to genetic manipulations that would be ethically acceptable, but that is a question already existing before cloning.

Animal Welfare Concerns

We also need to be sure about the animal welfare aspects even of limited cloning. Many concerns have been raised about welfare problems - the number of failed pregnancies, unusually large progeny, and other problems - many of which see to relate to abnormal development of the placenta during the pregnancy. It is clearly necessary to understand better the causes and establish whether the problems can be prevented, before the methods could be allowed for more general use. If after a reasonable time there seemed little prospect doing so, however, one would doubt whether it was ethical to go any further. This also points to the serious possibility that any attempt at human cloning could be extremely dangerous for both the clone and the mother, and thus medically unethical, irrespective of wider ethical concerns.

Are there Unjustifiable Uses of Animal Cloning?

If an ethical case can be made in favour of Roslin's limited and indirect application of cloning, can the same be done for using cloning directly in routine animal production, to accelerate or side-step natural methods? For many, this would be unjustifiable, quite apart from the welfare concerns. What's the problem, you might ask, since we already intervene in nature in selective breeding, and use methods like artifical insemination and embryo transfer? If there was a clear benefit to the farmer to start off with prime stock, to produce the best beef or pork, this might seem to have its attractions. But the answer might lie in a wider question about where we have reached in our human use of animals.

Animals as Supermarket Commodities?

What should we do with animals? Most of us eat them, but not everyone. Quite of a lot of us enjoy them as pets and companions, or watching some of them in the wild. We used to use them to carry and haul for us, until technology made it redundant. But technology is now coming up with other ways of using the creatures we share the planet with, which pose important questions. And whatever use we find for animals, should we clone them so we can do so more efficiently?

One assumption is that the animal kingdom is there for us to use in almost any way scientists dream up or commercial companies see a market, short of inflicting gratuitous pain. The fact that we kill animals to eat them is taken to justify more or less any other use, especially if we can cite human medicine or job creation as goals. On this view, only if they are warm and furry, or primates, do we start to have some qualms, and even then, very selectively.

Many people would disagree. Nature is not ours to do exactly what we like with. On a Christian understanding, all creation owes its existence ultimately to God. This does not mean that we cannot use animals, but it does mean that humans have a duty of care and respect towards them, as creatures which exist firstly for God, and only secondarily may be used by us. Such use must be responsible and with a dignity due to another of God's creatures, and we should hold back from some uses. Is cloning then the point to say "no"?

The suggestion that cloning is justified because we already intervene so much in animals can be an excuse for looking properly at the case in point. It also begs the question about what we are already doing. There are a number of techniques in regular use on farm animals which are ethically borderline, which illustrates a general problem. Both biotechnology and industrial production methods in agriculture carry over certain assumptions from the sphere of chemistry or engineering which, though scientifically applicable to animals, may not always be morally applicable to them. We see this in the animal welfare problems which conventional selective breeding has caused in some cases, such as poultry, from applying production logic too far.

Against that context, if anything, what is called for is greater restraint. Why would we want to clone meat producing animals, anyway? Most of the suggested applications relate to production improvements rather than clear human or animal benefits. To create genetic replica animals routinely, for the sake of production convenience for the supermarket would be to apply a model derived from factory mass production too far into the realm of living creatures. In the limit, to manipulate animals to be born, grow and reach maturity for sale and slaughter at exactly the time we want them, to suit production schedules suggests one step too far in turning animals into nothing more than commodities.


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