Scottish Sheep Shocker!


Can cloning be baaaad?
  Got a copyright on them genes?
Does the sheep-cloning breakthrough portend good or evil? Sorry -- don't look to us for a prediction -- when it comes to biotechnology, we have enough trouble keeping up with today or tomorrow. Can't bother predicting next week.

Recognizing our limits, we did ask some people who are paid to know about these things. Although this radical break with human and biological tradition raises huge spiritual and religious questions, we stayed away from them -- not because we think they're unimportant, but because we didn't feel qualified to even ask about them.

What are the ethical ramifications of cloning? Clearly, the answer will depend on how society chooses to use and regulate the technology. Will it be seized upon as a technique for becoming immortal? Will those with enough bucks try to make exact, down-to-the-last-emotion copies of themselves and their children? Or will it be used for more limited (but still substantial goals), like creating new bone for use in cancer therapy?

National Bioethics Advisory Commission member Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin-Madison medical ethicist, thinks part of the reason "people are so freaked out" reflects an uneasiness with twins, who are seen as having an uncanny relationship with each other and the outside world. Cloning also represents an ominous degree of hubris -- or chutzpah -- she says and a level of control that entails a great degree of responsibility.

Another explanation for the frenzy that the cloning story has attracted is the fact that it's been a worry since the biotechnology revolution began 20-something years ago. The possibility of cloning humans "has a certain aura of inevitability about it," says Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. Farley points to some defensible, if not necessarily legitimate, reasons to make copies of people. "What if we took all of the Nobelists and cloned them? They would presumably start out being identical to their parents."

Rusty Xerox?
But as Farley indicates, clones will not be exact replicas. Although they will start with similar genetics, they will develop differently in response to environmental cues. But the prospect of some "white-coats" manipulating the genetics and origins of humans beings sits poorly with many people, inside and outside the scientific community. The Why Files couldn't find a scientist who endorsed making clonal copies of humans. "There are lots of things that can be done in animals and plants that you would never do in humans," notes Philip Leder of Harvard's genetics department, "and we didn't need this discovery to know that. We've been doing breeding for millennia, but we well understand the barrier between doing that with animals, and forcing it on humans. ... most people would find that simply wrong."

Other scientists, including Ian Wilmut, the British researcher who did the sheep cloning, want to stop at the other side of the phylogenetic divide between humans and other mammals. "There is no reason in principle why you couldn't do it [with humans]," he told one newspaper. "All of us would find it offensive."

But the technology is not very sophisticated, and, according to some reports, much of the needed equipment is already present at the many in-vitro fertilization clinics that allow infertile couples to have children.

In the United States, President Clinton asked the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to issue recommendations this June on ways to regulate human cloning. (On March 4, he went further by banning federal funding for human cloning research; there are no reports that such research is under way in the United States.)

Commission member Charo says the group "will put out options for credible speed bumps on the slippery slope" toward human cloning and hopes it will examine a broad range of questions before recommending those bumps. "One of our challenges is to demonstrate that we can add sentiment, emotion, and a religious context to the cost-benefit analysis that is so favored by law and medicine" in the discussion of cloning.

More questions than answers
Medical ethicists love asking questions, and that's just as well, because cloning technology has so many ramifications that it's more sensible to start with questions than answers. Charo says these are some of the many unknowns on the table:

  Would cloning animals that were genetically engineered to make medicines in their milk be another step "down the road toward using animals entirely as a means toward human ends?"

  Cloning genetically engineered animals to make transplant organs for humans would require killing the animals. Charo asks whether this would be "part of a coarsening toward the pain of others who are not part of our species?" (The Why Files covered xenotransplantation here.)

  Would growing human or animal clones to make transplant tissues become "a Band-Aid" for a malfunctioning organ-transplant system? (While thousands of people die waiting for transplant organs, a simpler, quicker and cheaper solution, as Charo points out, would be to sign organ donation cards now.)

  Who's in control of the technology? "What if my copies make copies?" Charo asks. Such a prospect "raises a specter of out-of-control manipulation," she says.

  With cloning, "you know exactly what you are getting," genetically speaking. "Do you think you could pass that test?" Charo asks. "Very few people could." Yet removing chance from the reproductive equation would be a drastic break with biology.

  Would people want to replicate a child who's about to die? And would they treat that child like its genetic parent, the dead child? What would that do to the clone?

  We could go on, but let's get to Charo's ultimate question: "Can we take advantage of this without being sucked into the abyss?"

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