Defining progress

The cloning of 30 human embryos by South Korean scientists confirmed that moral concerns are rarely an obstacle to scientific progress. Research, particularly in today’s globalized world, will always find a way to overcome any obstacles. Something that is legally banned in one country, say the United States, for example, can eventually be carried out somewhere else, such as in Korea. Legislative barriers may delay progress but cannot put a halt to it. This, of course, raises the question of whether imposing restrictions on Western scientists only allows Asian researchers to take precedence over their counterparts. The question takes on greater weight in the case of cloned embryos, as this is not cloning for reproductive purposes – on which most reservations seem based and convincing (but a practice the South Korean scientists reject as «paranoid» and impossible) but rather a technique called «therapeutic cloning.» This involves the growth of perfectly matched tissue, organs or batches of cells that can be later used to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s or even to patch a severed spinal cord. In the face of such challenges, moral objections are hard to sustain. The view that an embryo is a human being, even just a few days after conception (meaning that it must not be created in order to be destroyed) is in line with the Kantian moral imperative that humans must not be treated like objects. On the other hand, this runs against the widely held notion that man is more than an aggregate of a group of cells. As for man’s right to interfere with nature with the aim of prolonging his life, human history has already provided an answer to the question by legitimizing the stunning progress in medicine, chemistry and genetic engineering. Like many other human accomplishments, the moral and social dilemma is not whether progress must be allowed to continue but in the way and extent to which its fruits are to be utilized. The food industry, currently plagued by the cattle and avian diseases, highlights the perils which derive from the unchecked exploitation of technological progress for profit. Furthermore, in the case of therapeutic cloning, there is an additional issue that must be addressed, namely that of fair distribution. In other words, how many or who will have access to the new and, most likely, costly treatments. Imposing social and economic limits on such great challenges is no easy task. But we have no alternative. Banning progress is neither desirable nor feasible.