What Would You Do to Have a Baby?

Send in the Clones

6 min read

July 9, 2001 -- The urge to reproduce -- to pass on one's own genetic material at any cost -- can lead animals to attack and kill rivals, mates, and unrelated young.

But humans have evolved beyond all that -- haven't we? Not so fast. We may not be killing to create, but read the headlines and you may be surprised at the lengths to which some people are prepared to go to ensure their shot at genetic immortality.

"Adoption is always an option, but many couples want a child with their own genes, even if that means cloning," says Panayotis Zavos, EdS, PhD, associate director of the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine. Exhibit A: a couple who hope to replace their dead baby daughter with an infant cloned from her genetic material.

Eager to help fill the void is Clonaid, a human-cloning company created by Raël, the leader of an international religious group that claims life on Earth was created scientifically through genetic engineering by extraterrestrials.

Still others make no bones about their own bid for immortality, wanting to re-create themselves in miniature.

"Having babies is fun, and having clones would be even more fun," Richard G. Seed, PhD, tells WebMD. "Having a little Richard Seed in the house would be great!"

When Zavos, Clonaid, and others announced plans to attempt human cloning within two years, American politicians introduced legislation to prohibit it, fearing that the FDA might be powerless to exercise its jurisdiction over this emotionally charged issue. The House is now debating a bipartisan bill imposing a minimum $1 million civil fine for any efforts at human cloning. President Bush has made it clear he would sign any bill outlawing cloning in the U.S.

"In the last 20 to 30 years, the Supreme Court established reproductive rights that the government can't interfere with," says Seed, a physicist with expertise in infertility treatment. "You would have to go through difficult contortions of logic to make abortion legal, but cloning illegal."

"We're not as revolutionary as the so-called ethicists call us," says Zavos, president of his own company, which markets infertility technology worldwide. "Like any novel pioneering development, people are afraid of it, but they're going to have to learn to live with it."

As in the case of the atom bomb, say cloning critics, just because we have the technology doesn't mean we should use it. With human cloning, experts raise serious practical as well as ethical issues that call the technology itself into question.

"Cloning mammals has been thus far a dismal record of failures -- dead, dying, and deformed clones, and threats to the health and life of the females bearing cloned fetuses," Thomas H. Murray, PhD, president of the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., tells WebMD.

"Dolly the cloned sheep is grossly obese, and probably not normal," says Rudolf Jaenisch, MD. "Molly the cloned cow dropped dead in the field one day for unknown reasons."

Jaenisch, a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and a pioneer in animal models of gene transfer, is concerned that clones could have subtle genetic defects showing up later, with tragic consequences like brain damage.

"We can't assess that in a sheep that just eats grass all day," he says.

Possible risks to the mother include the relatively gargantuan size of the fetus. Because of the clone's excessive weight and a placenta seven times normal size, a cesarean section is always needed in cloned animals, Jaenisch explains.

If cloning works as rarely in humans as in animals, 95 to 99 of every 100 pregnancies would fail, causing physical and emotional trauma for the mother, he says.

"It was hit or miss before, but now the race is on," Zavos counters. "Acceleration of cloning developments will be astounding, once humans are thrown into the equation. It's amazing what we humans can do."

In humans, Zavos claims he will screen embryos for disease and genetic abnormalities, then transfer only those likely to implant themselves into the mother's womb.

"We're not sure that babies won't be born with defects, but to aim for perfection is our goal. We're just humble human beings wanting to assist couples in having a child," he says.

Jaenisch and others contend that screening may be inaccurate or misleading: "It is totally irresponsible to undertake reproductive cloning. People who want to do this are misleading the public and should be stopped."

Even more compelling than the medical risks are the ethical concerns, Patricia A. Baird, MD, tells WebMD.

"Human reproductive cloning is unethical and unsafe and should be prohibited," says Baird, a University Distinguished Professor of Medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

As polls indicate that 90% of society opposes human cloning, a democratic government cannot ethically support it, she testified before the California legislature.

Who would decide who gets cloned? In the absence of public funding, those who can afford it will be first in line.

Earlier Clonaid publicity suggested that the parents planning to clone their dead daughter were investing $1 million in the company and would pay $500,000 for the cloning attempt, after which they might profit from clonings of other babies, at prices "as low as $200,000."

Now the web site suggests that "the next clients on the list will be chosen according to their bid (for financial priority reasons) so that the money collected will help improve the technique from which everyone will benefit in the end."

Zavos admits he is screening prospective parents of clones for psychological as well as medical factors, but will not divulge the details.

"They should be able to take the heat and stay in the kitchen," he says. "But we don't want to make all these decisions ourselves. We want governmental, social, and religious leaders to be active participants in human cloning, as long as they don't ban it."

"Cloning raises deep issues about the meaning of parenthood and the flourishing of children," Murray says. The presidential bioethics committee, of which Murray is a member, also cites "effects on the moral, religious, and cultural values of society."

Psychological damage to clones could include losing their sense of identity or uniqueness, worry about premature death or ill health, and loss of social and family supports and relationships. Would the DNA donor be the clone's twin, or parent?

Baird recommends that individual reproductive rights be weighed against societal values. Cloning affects not only the parent, but the child, the society, and future generations.

As mankind has not yet dealt successfully with hunger, poverty, pollution, or warfare, "we are unlikely to have the wisdom to direct our own evolution," she says.

Despite legislation and ethical bans against cloning, the urge to reproduce may be too strong to be suppressed by common sense, moral obligations, or law.

In March, Zavos and Italian fertility specialist Severino Antinori announced that their team had unlimited funding and up to 700 couples willing to be cloned. After a massive outcry from religious organizations, the medical profession, and governmental agencies, human cloning efforts may be going undercover.

Recently, the FDA said it had inspected a Clonaid lab in Syracuse, N.Y., and had a signed agreement with the company that no cloning would occur until the legality of the issue was settled.

But that's not what Brigitte Boisselier, Clonaid's science director, says. She has threatened going to court to challenge the FDA's jurisdiction, and says Clonaid still plans to clone a child within the next year -- here in the U.S., or elsewhere if need be.

Meaning, it may just be a matter of time before the first human clone appears -- for better or for worse -- leaving the rest of humanity to deal with the ramifications.