Before I retired from full-time work at The Kansas City Star in 2006, I wrote a fair amount about early, or embryonic, stem cells and their potential to create ways to heal many diseases.
Embedded in that discussion was the question of whether one day it might be possible to clone human embryos that could produce embryonic stem cells and eventually whether it might be possible to clone whole human beings. In turn, that led to profoundly troubling ethical questions about whether it would be right to do so.
Those questions now have taken on greater urgency with the recent news that for the first time, as National Public Radio reported here, scientists have "cloned human embryos capable of producing embryonic stem cells."
On one side are scientists who believe they are ethically bringing forward curative technologies that will make life much better for suffering people. On the other side are ethicists and others who say that cloning a human embryo for the purpose of destroying it to get stem cells is a morally inadmissable behavior.
Beyond that, the scientists who have achieved this latest break-through say the embryos they create almost certainly could never be used to grow a fully healthy new human being and are not meant to. But they are meant to help heal disease, which is a good thing.
Others warn that we're on a slippery slope toward cloning humans and once that gate is crashed there's no telling where it will lead.
I have oversimplified the arguments here, which in reality come in lots of different shades. But the point is clear that humanity is -- or should be -- in the midst of a debate about what's the ethical thing to do.
I'm not sure it's either possible or wise to slow down the work of scientists in this area, but I do think it's necessary to have a public discussion about all of this as this work goes forward, and my hope is that the very scientists engaged in this work would have a prominent place in that conversation.
I can imagine all kinds of evil ways to use to cloning technology as well as many uses that are not just morally acceptable but morally praiseworthy. Let's educate ourselves about all of this before we wake up one day to find that we've crossed some line we never should have come near.
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THE POPE AS AN 'EMERGENT' LEADER?
Pope Francis is sounding more and more like some of the leaders of the Emergent Church Movement as he urges Catholics not to be "barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new." In remarks on Penetecost Sunday, he added, "Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control." It's the same message such Emergent gurus as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Tim Keel and others have been preaching for years now. And if the pope's advice is followed it can only make the Catholic Church more healthy.