Opinion: Cloning Controversy Can't Be Duplicated

From the WebMD Archives

June 14, 2001 (Washington) -- "I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet," writer Mary Shelley wrote of Frankenstein's misguided creator in her famous 1818 novel.

Her message: Scientific arrogance resulted in profound evil.

On the other hand, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA saw the potential positives of cloning, long before others did.

"Some people may sincerely believe the world desperately needs many copies of really exceptional people if we are to fight our way out of the ever-increasing computer-mediated complexity," wrote James Watson, PhD, in The Atlantic Monthly in 1971.

Still others have a less complex view. "I would go for it. I would have been cloned," said Arnold Schwarznegger.

In the four years since Ian Wilmut unveiled Dolly, his cloned creation, scientists and lay people have struggled to comprehend the enormity of the achievement. In our own way, we have as much trouble deconstructing a cloned sheep as the ancients did interpreting an eclipse darkening the sun.

The phenomenon inspires awe and terror, depending on how the witness interprets the event. So it is with cloning. Some who've lost a child look at cloning as a chance to regain a loved one. Others see it as a road to genetic immortality, by creating a string of DNA duplicates, built for reasons either monstrous or benign.

Scientists view cloning as a tool that has many elegant applications. For instance, in April researchers at New York's Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center showed it may be possible to clone the fertilized eggs, or embryos, of mice and turn them into insulin-producing cells. A feat that would aid the millions of diabetics.

This is only the latest in a litany of supposed miracle treatments that could come through cloning. For instance, everything from defective brain tissue in Alzheimer's disease to a failing heart might be ameliorated if a person's functional cells could be cloned and regrown.

For the moment though, all of these applications are just hypothetical. The reality is far murkier.

It took some 300 tries before Wilmut produced Dolly. How many grotesque misfires are tolerable, and how long will they be allowed to grow, before a decision is made to end their lives?

But the concerns don't only lie within the world of ethics.

Two cloned calves dying in California last week after they were born healthy has created something of a regulatory uproar. Can we eat cloned meat?

These questions are hard enough for animal experiments, much less human beings. For that reason, former President Bill Clinton imposed a moratorium on federal funds for human cloning soon after Wilmut's lamb roared onto the scene like a genetic lion.

Following Clinton's action, the President's National Bioethics Advisory Committee concluded: "at this time, it is morally unacceptable for anyone in the public or private sector ... to attempt to create a child using [cloning]."

In addition to safety issues, the Commission identified other problems with cloning such as, "potential psychological harms to children and effects on the moral, religious, and cultural values of society."

However, that hasn't stopped zealots from pursuing goals for personal, financial, and religious reasons. Consider the case of Rael, whose Raelian movement claims that life on earth was created by an extraterrestrial lab and that Jesus' resurrection was, in fact, a divine cloning. Rael's affiliate, Clonaid, according to its web site, charges $200,000 for cloning services. The organization expects to see results in some 18 months.

Other more mainstream groups are also in the chase to make the first human clone.

Political and social conservatives introduced a bill in Congress last month that would ban all human cloning. However, such efforts can't halt a powerful technology anymore than 19th century English Luddites were able to stop the machines of the industrial age by hurling in their shoes.

Making carbon copies of ourselves would almost always be an exercise in vanity, except in rare circumstances. Besides, as we know, DNA is just a molecule and not our behavioral destiny. There's no guarantee that our biologic equivalent wouldn't be perversely different.

Would it be possible to clone Jesus from a DNA remnant on the Shroud of Turin, as one group advocates? The mind boggles at this high-tech notion of a resurrection.

Cloning for spare parts, similar to what's contemplated with primitive stem cells, seems a healthier approach.

In both cases, though, the hardest problems aren't really scientific, but ethical and political. In other words, separating the good uses from the bad.

However, isn't that always how it is? Mary Shelley knew that when she had her sympathetic monster say, "[T]he fallen angel has become a malignant devil. ... I am quite alone."

Jeff Levine is the Washington bureau chief for WebMD. He has covered health policy in Washington since 1989. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of WebMD.

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