The Vedic Observer

ON NOVEMBER 25, 2001, the U.S. biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) announced that it had cloned a human embryo. The announcement caused widespread alarm and concern. ACT used cloning to grow a tiny six-celled embryo that could serve as a source of stem cells. It is hoped that stem cells could be used to treat a wide range of diseases, from diabetes and stroke to incurable degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Pro-life lobbyists in the United States fear that human embryos are being created by cloning for the sole purpose of killing them to harvest their cells. Some members of the U.S. Congress have proposed a ban on human cloning. But scientists say that stem cell research could provide hope for a wonder cure, because the forty or so cells making up the microscopic cluster of a few-days-old human embryo are found to be astonishingly versatile seeds that may be coaxed into replicating almost any kind of cell, tissue, or organ in the human body.

The idea of regenerating tissues or organs in lieu of surgery has been gaining ground. The main issue involved in stem cell research is whether the new field is ethical and moral, and thus to be permitted by civilized society.

Non-Material Organizing Force

The problem is that although scientists know that stem cells can morph into any kind of cell, they have no idea what impels the morphogenesis, or the process of cell division, after the fertilization of the egg. A living organism is much more than the aggregate of its cells. Study of the cell and its nucleus can never reveal the cause of cell reproduction. How the single-celled egg and the single cell that fertilizes it divide and multiply until their number is increased astronomically to form a whole living being staggers the imagination.

German biologist Hans Driesch (1867-1941) said, "Life, at least morphogenesis, is not a specialized arrangement of inorganic events; biology therefore is not applied physics and chemistry. Life is something apart, and biology is an independent science."

It is life, a non-material force, Driesch insisted, that produces order and form in the living being. Biologists have no satisfactory explanation for the marvelous and purposeful process by which the single fertilized cell is able to duplicate itself infinitely according to a pre-determined blueprint to form a whole living being with life and consciousness.

In his 1962 book The Nature of Life, evolutionist C. H. Waddington notes that cells are neatly arranged into organs with definite shapes and specific functions. He admits: "I'm afraid biologists have to confess that they have hardly any notion of how this is done. It certainly must involve something more than purely chemical processes."

Cell reproduction works according to a master plan to form a highly complex but orderly and well-designed living organism. Seeking the mechanism of cell reproduction will not reveal the directing force behind it.

The fertilized egg used in stem cell research is human life and not inert chemicals. Human life starts from the moment of fertilization. The zygote possesses life, as its growth through cell division shows. The addition of a few more years of life to patients suffering from degenerative diseases should not come at the cost of snuffing out the life of posterity at the very start of their mortal career.

Human intellect should not ignore the prompting of moral conscience. Learning through trial and error is fraught with grave risks and dangers. For example, Scottish researchers who cloned the sheep Dolly used 277 unfertilized eggs for cloning, of which 29 fertilized but only one grew to full term. Success stories are well publicized, but failures are usually hushed up. If human embryonic stem cells are implanted in aged patients, there could be a mismatch between the new and the old cells, giving rise to new complications.

Many scientists who do research using adult stem cells feel that there may not be any need for research using stem cells derived from human embryos and fetuses. Recent research with adult stem cells reveals that they are capable of replicating themselves and even differentiating into other cells.

Hands Off

Knowledge of the profound secrets of nature in regard to the process of fertilization should be treated as highly sacred, to be handled with utter humility and deep reverence. Biologists should realize that appearances can be wholly deceptive; knowing about the superficial aspects of the cell does not mean one understands the whole of the working of nature.

To earn name and fame, curious scientists, under the banner of research, should not take advantage of the vulnerability of the seriously sick to play with the lives of embryos and fetuses. In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna says, "Those who are demonic do not know what is to be done and what is not to be done; neither cleanliness nor proper behavior nor truth is found in them. They say that the world is unreal, with no foundation, no God in control. They say it is the product of sex desire and has no cause other than lust. Following such conclusion, the demonic, who are lost in themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world. Taking shelter of insatiable lust and absorbed in the conceit of pride and false prestige, the demonic, thus illusioned are always sworn to unclean works, attracted by the impermanent."

Human life, in whatever form, should be treated as highly sacred, and secular science should not lay its hands on the life of posterity. By portraying stem cells as the only panacea for all ills, scientists seem to be making highly exaggerated claims about their potentiality and prospects. It may be recalled that gene therapy was hailed as the most effective antidote for human ills, but its clinical application is nowhere in sight. Morally conscious citizens of civilized society should not be carried away by the tall claims of scientists. Stem cell research in all its forms based on human cloning should be opposed and rejected.

Since retiring as chief general manager of the Bangalore office of the Reserve Bank of India, P. Govindarajan has devoted himself to spreading Vaisnava philosophy, especially the message of Bhagavad-gita. He contributes articles on Vaisnavism and the Gita to Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam's journal Sapthagiri, Gita Press's Kalyana Kalpataru, and Bhavan's Journal.