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Angelina Jolie's pain is a gain for all of us


Angelina JolieThe week's news of actor Angelina Jolie's pre-emptive double mastectomy has shown that science can improve human wellbeing with the use of highly specialised surgical techniques. Jolie went through the operation in order to reduce her chances of contracting breast cancer from around 87 per cent to 5 per cent.

In recent days, we also heard that scientists have proved it is possible to increase our wellbeing by turning skin cells into embryos that can be used to create tissue cells for transplant operations. This act of human cloning would lead to the cure of a range of debilitating afflictions including Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and spinal cord injuries.

We can marvel at Jolie's short-term pain for long-term gain, and hope that we would have the courage to do likewise in comparable circumstances. But while hers was an entirely rational choice towards saving her life, there are instances where we would baulk at making a rational choice to save our life. 

An example might be eating human flesh in the absence of other food sources, which is considered taboo. The same can be said for human cloning. We could create a super race of human beings if we cloned intelligent people and sterilised imbeciles. But we wouldn't. There are certain actions that are considered uncivilised because to do them is to undermine civilisation and our collective human rights. 

Many would contend that it hardly undermines civilisation to simply reprogram human skin cells to become embryonic stem cells to produce tissue for transplants — especially if the rest of the embryo is is be destroyed — if the intention is to save human life or eliminate chronic suffering. It's said that the risks can be managed.

Others would argue that this is a form of NIMBYism that threatens what we all share in order to satisfy our own private needs, even if it is the ultimate need to save a life.

A 1997 resolution of the European Parliament acknowledged the need to ensure the benefits of biotechnology are not lost, but insisted that:

the cloning of human beings ... [for] tissue transplantation or for any other purpose whatsoever, cannot under any circumstances be justified or tolerated by any society, because it is a serious violation of fundamental human rights and is contrary to the principle of equality of human beings as it permits a eugenic and racist selection of the human race, it offends against human dignity and it requires experimentation on humans.

There is nothing wrong with the aspiration of eugenics to ensure desirable qualities in human beings, but not at the cost of our humanity. Angelina Jolie's use of science in such a courageous manner enhanced her dignity and inspired others to do likewise. But even judicious use of a cloning technique would threaten to undermine it.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. Angelina Jolie image by Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, cloning, Angelina Jolie, pre-emptive masectomy, surgery, embryonic stem cells, ethics



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Existing comments

Spot on, Michael. Well expressed.

HH | 18 May 2013  

"...eating human flesh in the absence of other food sources is considered taboo."

I recall reading that Fernando Parrado, one of the two survivors that left the Andes crash site in order to find help, felt very inhibited in his relationship with his parish church until the priest (having failed to get him to open up) volunteered to him that the Catholic Church had long since ruled that to eat human flesh when there was no other means of survival was not sinful. Killing a person for food is of course another matter.

Michael Grounds | 20 May 2013  

Michael, this thesis opens many important areas for debate not the least of which is that eternal debate which pits science against the faith and beliefs of the Church (and thus against God and creation), the debate between truth and fundamentalism. Any cursory glance at the progress of mankind attests to the dependence of that advance on the advance of science, notably opposed in such infamous instances as the vilification of scientists such as Capernicus, Gallileo, Mendel and the modern day geneticists responsible for such projects as IVF, organ transplantation surgery, etc. All of these things exist.They are provable truths and as such are they not surely part of God's creation? It seems to me that God's revelelation exists not only in the scriptures but also in the revelation of all that He has created, in the marvels of the scientific gifts that He has provided for the overall benefit of mankind - His professed greatest love within all that He has made. We live in a world of constant evolution. not the least of which is the evolution of Man's understanding of all that God has created - the ongoing revelation of truth. Why God draws this process of revelation out over many milennia I'm damned if I know. Why did He reveal to the Australian Nobel prize wimmer, Howard Florey, the antibiotic penicillin, only 60 years ago, in the face of the innumeral deaths that occurred for the need of it up until the year 1942? Ah, the mystery! But in the meantime let us rejoice in all that God reveals of His creation through those He has chosen to so reveal, and not try to squeeze these truths into a fit with man made philosophical ponderings.

john frawley | 20 May 2013  

I believe that in cloning "discussions" the Church has failed us by taking too narrow a view, predicated on the great gorilla of Humanae vitae i.e. that IVF is off limits essentially in any form because it is "artificial". This has led to a failure to be really able to engage fully in the conversation, and to a certain lack of finesse, as in addition to there above, all toti-potential cells are regarded essentially as independent human beings. I would suggest that there should be a firm, legally-enfored line between cloning for reproduction or not. Where the intention is to provide a baby for a loving mum and dad, then the source of cells has to be to be that man and woman even if non-germ cells are used, and the conceptus cannot be used for ANY other purpose including experimentation. On the other hand if the purpose is non-reproductive/therapeutic, then germ cells (sperm or ovum) cannot be used, but only somatic cells, and any toto-potential cells produced cannot be used for reproduction i.e. cannot be used to implant in an uterus or to clone a human in vitro. Such somatic toti-potential cells could legally be used for experimentation directed at growing it out as new tissue for auto-transplantation, which ultimately is the primary aim. As for cannibalism, the Church needs to move from taboo to non-neurotic maturity so that it can truly lead in this area. At the moment there is just too much strident "NO!".

Eugene | 20 May 2013  

AJ 's voluntary mastectomy is a huge win for the gene testing corporation that owns the gene patent and charges thousands for the test. It 's scare mongering ... 87%? Family history is not mentioned - all women have a 10% chance. Maybe she just wanted new tits - a common phenomenon in her line of work.

krisee | 20 May 2013  

The argument in this article rests upon the assumption that the product of this cloning procedure at some point gains a 'soul' or becomes human. Yet there's no fertilisation or creation of new DNA. There's no conception because the eggs are not fertilized by sperm. The growth is stimulated by chemicals and electricity. If the zygote is considered 'alive' then this constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of biology. Religion is a necessary critic of science, but I have to speak up about the kind of religious 'controversy' that surrounds stem cell research. Humans are a funny species. In war we kill each other to 'save lives'. We love our pets but destroy millions of animals each day to satisfy our cravings for meat. Yet, when a scientific breakthrough promises to save and improve countless ACTUAL human beings, we cry out over some frozen DNA in a petri dish. Genetic engineering is probably a better topic to focus on because of its role in exacerbating profound social inequality.

Tim Graham | 20 May 2013  

I half agree with Tim, and certainly he makes a reasonable argument for this sort of somatic cloning to be on the right side of the moral line. However, in the process an ovum has to be obtained from a woman`s ovaries by an invasive procedure, her mono-ploid DNA has to be removed, and in a sense the ovum is then "fertilised" by the complete diploid DNA from the "father`s" somatic cell. It continue to carry the "mother`s" mitochondrial DNA. The "fertilised" cell could now potentially be implanted in an uterus and become a baby, which I believe would be unacceptable. If the same cell were to be regarded exclusively as a completely de-differentiated somatic cell to be used only for transplant material in the "father", then I think I could live with that. But what we call things here is vitally important, and some will call it a fertilised egg (which semantically it could be) and then use it as such, and it will be very difficult to regulate. Perhaps better not go down that track at all legally.

Eugene | 21 May 2013  

Eugene, There's no semantic debate about it. If you fertilize an egg then it's a fertilized egg. It doesn't matter what process got you there. I also don't see why it needs to be regulated. We don't regulate standard pregnancy, twin pregnancy, or surrogate pregnancy and cloning is just a combination of them. Why does it suddenly matter that the child has all of a parent's DNA instead of half? Legally there should be no track to go down. It's simply an identical twin with a delayed birth. Society will find out very quickly that a cloned person is not some freakish doppelganger of the original, and that nurture matters just as much as nature.

Joe | 21 May 2013  

I wish to shift focus from cloning to Michael's comments, "Angelina Jolie's use of science in such a courageous manner enhanced her dignity and inspired others to do likewise." While I don't question AJ's right to take this rather extreme preventive action against her naturally higher than average risk of breast cancer, I query Michael's assertion that it enhances her dignity. Some years before 1968, when few Catholics debated the Church's blanket condemnation of artificial birth control methods, my aunt had a tubal ligation to prevent further high risk to her own fragile life were she to conceive another child. Her feeling of enhanced dignity was such that she had a nervous breakdown from the guilt she felt in opting for a surgical procedure to reduce her higher than average risk of death in childbirth. I wish I could interpret Michael's comment as a signal that the Church has moved away from the traditional condemnation of health practices it considers contrary to natural law. But, no, I cannot. Somewhere between the Church's condemnatory attitude and amputation to prevent an illness which has not yet struck, there is a middle ground for accepting high level medical practices. The minimal definition of that middle ground is that illness has already struck.

Ian Fraser | 21 May 2013  

Perhaps it is the case that what God has created is the mechanism through which human life is brought into existence - a process common to all animals in the vertebrate world. The creators of a particular human life at a particular time are the man and woman who have brought their genes together in the procreative act designed by their Creator or, in the brave new world, the scientists who use other means to bring the life creating elements together. Now there's a good little bit of heresy to bring to the debate. I wonder if God gets upset when horticulturalists take seeds from a tree, plant them in the earth and provide the water and nutrient necessary for the seed to grow into a massive tree, something quite different from a seed. I can feel a blissful eternity for me retreating into the distance!

john frawley | 21 May 2013  

"is contrary to the principle of equality of human beings" A human sperm and a human ovum are each alive, and as they have a 'life' must be considered as a 'Being'. A distinction needs to be drawn between their mode of 'being', and what we normally mean when we use the term 'human being', but they can truly be described as 'human beings'. The out-dated idea that when they come together God infuses a 'soul' needs to go the way of the flat earth belief and that of God dwelling just above the clouds and casting down thunder bolts when mankind transgresses. At conception, there are no nerve cells and no brain cells, so the little 'being' can only be described as potentially a human. If all the sperm and all the cells came together and grew, we would soon all be smothered. We need to move on from the ancient conclusions of uninformed and outdated ideas, even if the future is not yet entirely clear.

Robert Liddy | 23 May 2013  

human cloning is not "taboo" - it happens every time identical twins occur.

edwin coleman | 24 May 2013  

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