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Buddhist perspective on cloning
Author: Andromeda

This article is an excerpt from a series of discussions on cloning that took place in April 2008 in Los Angeles, California, and Columbus, Ohio, USA.  The speakers for this discussion series include Bhikkhu Jotidhammo (Sangha Theravada Indonesia) and Andromeda (biologist).  This article is not a representative of what is agreed upon by the Buddhist community; rather it is a series of argument by the author from both Buddhist and science perspective.  This article should only be distributed free of charge without the necessity of seeking the permission from the author.

In general, cloning is defined as a process of amplifying biological materials that can include DNA, cells, tissues, organs, and organisms.  The amplified materials (clones) should have the same DNA as their parental DNA.  Since DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) stores genetic information, clones should have the same genetic information as their parent.  There are 3 kinds of cloning:
1)    DNA cloning
2)    Therapeutic cloning
3)    Reproductive cloning

1.    DNA cloning

What is DNA cloning?

DNA cloning is also known as molecular cloning, recombinant DNA technology, and gene cloning.  Accordingly, the biological materials being cloned in DNA cloning are the DNAs.  Therefore, DNA cloning is the simplest type of cloning.  Scientists use recombinant DNA technology to produce proteins (protein expression & purification), cell transfection for studying protein function in certain cells, and for other biological applications. 

Ethical aspect of DNA cloning
Since the process of DNA cloning itself does not cause any harm in living creatures, DNA cloning certainly does not evoke any ethical issues in Buddhism.  DNA cloning is a common biological technique widely and freely used in many science laboratories.

2.    Therapeutic cloning

What is therapeutic cloning?

Therapeutic cloning is the process of cloning tissues or organs, in which the cloned tissues/organs would only be used for therapeutic purposes.  The process of therapeutic cloning involves a procedure called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), in which the nucleus from an ovum is replaced with the nucleus from a somatic cell (that will be cloned).  Somatic cells include cells from the body except the reproductive cells (sperms and ova).  In other words, SCNT consists of 3 steps: 1) removing the nucleus from the ovum, 2) isolating the somatic nucleus, 3) inserting the isolated somatic nucleus into the enucleated ovum.  So at the end of the microscopic SCNT procedure, one will end up with an ovum in which its original nucleus has been replaced with the somatic nucleus.   This cell will develop into blastocyst (early stage of embryogenesis) that contains stem cells.  Stem cells are cells that are capable of differentiating into many different cell types.  These stem cells would then be induced to grow into specific tissues or organs. 
In short, if you would like to obtain a new heart to replace your malfunctioning heart, scientists would isolate the nucleus of your somatic cells (e.g., skin cells) and insert it into the ovum (donated by a woman) that has been enucleated (its nucleus removed).  The cell will then be grown, and the resulting stem cells will be isolated and induced to grow into your new heart.

What is the benefit of therapeutic cloning?
The benefit is quite significant!  Patients with malfunctioning hearts, kidneys, and other organs can have their new organs.  Why couldn’t they find organ donors?  The short answer is immunohistocompatibility.  The incompatible donors will cause the host immune system attacking the ‘foreign’ organ.  As a result, the transplanted organ will fail.  So the benefit of therapeutic cloning is clear, i.e., as a new alternative of medical therapy. 

Ethical aspect of therapeutic cloning
Even though there has not been an agreement among biologists and other Buddhist scholars on the ethical aspect of therapeutic cloning, it is clear that Buddhism does not view the cells in our body as living creatures.   That is, individual human cell, tissue, and organ in our body do not possess their own mental aggregates (Pali: nama).  Ova and sperms are also not considered living creatures that have their own mental consciousness.  However, as fertilization takes place, fetus will be formed through embryogenesis.  The newborn will have both mental (Pali: nama) and physical (Pali: rupa) aggregates.  The question here is, “At what stage of embryogenesis does the mental consciousness appear to exist?”

This question is important because in Buddhist view, living creatures consist of both mental (nama) and physical (rupa) aggregates (Ref: Samyutta Nikaya 12.2).  The relationship between these mental and physical components is very intricate, and they are quite inseparable.   Without our ears and audio nervous system, we cannot hear.  However, when we are not alert enough, e.g., during our sleep, we probably cannot hear soft voices that usually could be heard when we are fully alert.  Therefore, the mental and physical aggregates are quite inseparable from one another.   They need each other.  So when do these mental aggregates form during embryogenesis?

Stem cells are formed around 4-5 days post-fertilization (fusion in the case of cloning).  At this stage, there is no sign of the presence of mental consciousness.   As discussed above, mental consciousness is strongly linked to nervous system, i.e., without nervous system our mental consciousness will not function; therefore, we should examine when the nervous system is being formed during embryogenesis.  The process of nervous system formation in embryogenesis is known as neurulation; and this process starts about three weeks post-fertilization (Ref: Am J Med Genet C Semin Med Genet, 135C(1): 2-8).  This is the earliest time that an embryo can be said to have a nervous system.  At this point, the nervous system has just begun to form and is certainly far from its completion.  Because of this reason, the 4-5 day-post-fertilization stage should not be categorized as ‘living’ according to Buddhist definition.  And the recovery of stem cells at this stage of embryogenesis should not be labeled as ‘killing.’  Therefore, therapeutic cloning should not be considered as an unethical act if only it is done in the first week post-fertilization. 

3.    Reproductive cloning

What is reproductive cloning?
Reproductive cloning is a process of making new organism (clone) whose DNA is identical to its parent (the one being cloned).  The method used in reproductive cloning is similar to that of therapeutic cloning; however, the embryo formed is allowed to grow in the uterus of a surrogate mother.
What are the benefits of reproductive cloning?
The benefits of reproductive cloning include the selection of good genes in cattle that are responsible for high quality of dairy products, the reintroduction of the extinct species, etc.

Philosophical aspect of reproductive cloning
According to Buddhism, living creatures are not the products of divine creation, but are formed by delusion (Ref: Samyutta Nikaya 12.2).  Because of mental delusion, living creatures are subjected to rebirth.  Accordingly, with the cessation of mental delusion, rebirth ceases.   There is no ‘ego’ (soul, absolute existence).  Living creatures experience rebirth due to mental delusion.  This teaching is also known as dependent origination (Pali: paticcasamupada).  That is, everything exists due to its condition.  With the cessation of that condition, that existence also ceases.  Hence, there is no absolute existence.   The concept of reproductive cloning could be accepted in Buddhism, and is not viewed as awe. Cloning can be successful because scientists understand that ovum with the diploid nucleus from somatic origin can grow into embryo.  By supplying such a condition, embryo will form.  And with that supportive condition, mental (Pali: nama) and physical (Pali: rupa) aggregates can develop into existence—a baby is then born.

Ethical aspect of reproductive cloning
Although Buddhism can accept the concept of reproductive cloning, pragmatically speaking reproductive cloning still has many technical concerns.  There have been many reports that describe the abnormalities of clones.  The reasons for their abnormalities remain unclear.  However, some scientists believe that the somatic nucleus used in reproductive cloning may not be optimal because of the shortening of the telomeres (the two ends of the DNA that get shorter as the DNA replicates).  Many clones had short lives.  Therefore, scientists should acknowledge the underlying moral responsibility, and should not put reproductive cloning into practice, especially in a large scale.  However, in order to tackle these technical concerns, experiments are needed.  These experiments would tend to generate ethical issues.  When these technical difficulties have been sorted out, reproductive cloning may then become a common practice in our society.