by Richard M. Doerflinger
June 20, 2003
You may have seen the headline: "American Medical Association endorses cloning for research purposes." And you may have wondered: What new medical evidence has driven the nation's largest medical organization to this?
The answer is: None at all. Researchers remain unable to produce a healthy embryo from human cloning, or to cure any animal using cells from cloned embryos.
So what is the real news about the AMA policy?
First, this is not a new policy. The AMA has endorsed human cloning for research since 1995, when it endorsed the recommendations of the National Institutes of Health's Human Embryo Research Panel. That panel recommended using tax dollars to create human embryos (by in vitro fertilization and cloning) and destroy them in research.
Moreover, the AMA has belonged to the major political coalition promoting cloning for research (the "Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research") for over a year. In 1999 the AMA even said that "assisting individuals or couples to reproduce" (so-called "reproductive cloning") would be a "potentially realistic and possibly appropriate" use of cloning if it can be made safer. (At that time other groups favoring "cloning for research" said they opposed any use of cloning to make liveborn babies.)
So after years of lobbying for this extreme political agenda, the AMA finally got its own Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs to rubber-stamp that agenda as ethical.
Second, the new AMA statement is, to say the least, muddled. It says cloning for biomedical research is "consistent with medical ethics," but "the pluralism of moral visions that underlie this debate must be respected" -- so individual physicians can support or oppose it. Says AMA: "The conflict centers on the moral status of embryos, a question that divides ethical opinion and that cannot be resolved by medical science."
The next sentence should have been: "Therefore we as a medical organization have no competence to decide whether research cloning involves unethical killing." Or the Council could have recalled the oath of the World Medical Association, to which AMA belongs: "I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from its beginning." Even the NIH panel whose conclusions the AMA praised in 1995 said that "the preimplantation human embryo warrants serious moral consideration as a developing form of human life."
Instead the AMA supports research cloning, because "physicians collectively must continue to be guided by their paramount obligation to the welfare of their patients."
In short, the embryo may be a person, and killing him may be homicide – that depends on your moral vision -- but one thing we know: He is not a paying customer.
Of course cloning may never provide treatments. But even an imagined future patient outranks a live human embryo, to be killed here and now in the name of progress. Tragically, having long ago abandoned the Hippocratic oath on abortion, the AMA soon found another way to ignore the basic norm of Hippocratic medicine: "First, do no harm."
Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.