Cloning debate not just for the experts

Print edition : January 31, 2003
(Published in the issue dated January 31, 2003.)

On December 27, 2002, Clonaid, a company associated with a France-based religious sect, the Raelians, claimed that it had produced the world's first human clone and that the baby, "Eve", was born to a 31-year-old American woman. No evidence of any kind has been produced. The science journalist, Dr. Michael A. Guillen, who had agreed to oversee tests to verify the Raelians' claim, has suspended his participation, announcing that his scientific team "has had no access to the alleged family, and therefore cannot verify firsthand the claim that a human baby has been cloned." He has said the whole project might be "an elaborate hoax." Meanwhile, the eminent writer and physician, Dr. Abraham Verghese, has offered this comment:

I WAS stunned to pick up the paper last week and read that a religious group claimed to have cloned a baby. Scientists the world over reacted with scepticism and in disbelief. What we know about the Raelians and their faith in Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) made this cloning claim and their press conference look like a circus sideshow, one seriously disconnected from science. Still, the faint possibility that a cloned human baby exists brought urgency to what had been, up to now, only a theoretical discussion.

I have been closely following the eloquent arguments on either side of the cloning issue, and like most ethical questions, there is no easy answer. Reasonable people will disagree, and legislation around this issue will please some and disappoint others. In fact, one question that we will continue to face is exactly what kind of legislation - how restrictive? how protective? - do we want when it comes to scientific research?

Compared to the complexity of the ethical argument, the technology of cloning is simple: remove the nucleus from an unfertilized egg and replace it with the nucleus (and hence the DNA) of another individual, such as the mother. (At one point it was reported Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams' son wanted to sell his father's DNA for just this purpose!) The egg is then stimulated with electrical current, so it forms a nascent embryo.

It is at this point that we must make an important distinction between two types of cloning: in therapeutic cloning, the embryo would never be implanted into a uterus but would be allowed to divide for a few days, and then a part of this tissue - "stem cells," which have the ability to become almost any kind of tissue, even nerve tissue - is removed.

The group in Stanford has argued that to call the production of these stem cells "cloning" is misleading, and that it is really nuclear transfer. Currently, about 60 or so stem cell lines are in existence and are being studied intensely for their potential in medicine. Most responsible scientists would like to see stem cell research - therapeutic cloning, if one calls it cloning - proceed with oversight and regulation. If these cells can, for example, be induced to make insulin, the potential benefit for people with diabetes could be huge.

Parkinson's disease is another condition for which stem cell research holds promise. Many ethicists argue that "life" starts with the first divisions of the cell and that producing stem cells purely for research is unethical. The definition of when life begins is controversial, but so is the decision of what to do with untold unused embryos already produced for infertile couples. Patients with diabetes and Parkinson's are in need of our best medical efforts. Most scientists feel, and I would agree, that stem cell work must go on for these reasons.

Reproductive cloning is quite a different cup of tea, and it has great hazards: Here, the embryo is implanted in a uterus and becomes a baby. Experiments with Dolly and other animals have suggested that many embryos are "wasted" before one is found that will take, and even then, there is a high risk of crippling genetic abnormalities.

In other words, cloning, even if it were ethically sound, is not yet scientifically sound. And then, even if one cloned a baby using, say, Ted Williams' DNA, there would be no assurance at all that the child would become a batter. Nature and nurture make the individual; environment is as important as the genes, and the child might well prefer Nintendo to a baseball bat.

There are other objections to reproductive cloning (assuming that it could be made safe), many of which have been well articulated by Dr. Leon Kass, current chair of the President's Commission on Bioethics. Cloning changes procreation into manufacturing; cloning recreates a person who already exists and therefore confuses identity; and finally, cloning represents a form of despotism of the cloners over the cloned. I think the hazards of reproductive cloning far outweigh any potential benefits.

One nice outcome of all the media attention given to cloning is that the bioethical community in this country has become very visible. But the debate must involve more than the experts; it is a public debate that involves all of us.

I can't help thinking that the vigour of the debate is a wonderful thing, reflecting the great strength of our multicultural, ethnically diverse, pluralistic and democratic society. (This comment was published first in the San Antonio Express-News.)

Dr. Abraham Verghese is director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

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