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December’s newspapers were dominated by stories about the Scott Peterson verdict, preëlection violence in Iraq, and, of course, the Indian Ocean tsunami. But one event barely made the front pages: Julie, a Dallas-area airline worker who withheld her last name, took ownership of a perfect genetic copy of her deceased cat Nicky. To create Little Nicky, Julie paid $50,000 to Sausalito, CA–based Genetic Savings and Clone (GSC) – which says it will deliver at least four more cat clones to clients this year, and will also create the world’s first dog clone (see “Genetic Savings and Clone: No Pet Project”).

Dolly the sheep, the first mammalian clone to survive to adulthood, was born barely eight years ago. But much sooner than most people expected, society has entered the age of consumer-oriented cloning services. Ready or not, citizens must decide whether to resist this latest advance in consumer biotechnology or condone and assimilate it – as they have the once controversial technique of in-vitro fertilization of human embryos.

Already critics have called GSC’s clones “Frankenpets,” have accused the company’s scientists of tampering with nature, and have disparaged its clients as desperate suckers with unhealthy attachments to their lost pets. Who else, they ask, would spend an amount exceeding the median annual income of U.S. households to see poor Fluffy or Fido again?

In GSC’s defense, this is not what the company promises. Customers are carefully informed that clones are, in essence, later-born twins and do not carry their genetic donors’ memories or “souls.”

But it’s easy to see where many of the critics’ concerns over pet cloning originate. For one thing, other companies have applied biotechnology to pets in undeniably silly ways: witness the GloFish, a transgenic zebra fish engineered by Yorktown Technologies of Austin, TX, to glow florescent red in a dark aquarium. Then there’s the fact that cloning technology has yet to be fully perfected: some clones develop abnormally or die prematurely, which understandably disturbs animal-rights activists. But clones with genetic abnormalities will doubtless become less common as the technology improves.

More doggedly, opponents of animal cloning say it’s unethical to spend so much money replicating deceased pets when thousands of cats and dogs languish in animal shelters awaiting homes. But while the abandoned-pet problem in the United States is real and shameful, it seems strangely illiberal to propose a ban on pet cloning. Infertile human couples are not criticized for pursuing IVF rather than adoption. Why should someone be forbidden a copy of a beloved but departed cat or dog merely because that money might be better spent? In free societies people often spend money on frivolous things.

Critics of pet cloning sometimes seem to be criticizing free markets as much as technology. Other critics seem really to be worrying about human cloning. But free-market societies have historically adopted a watchful but welcoming attitude toward innovation: if a technology is applied safely and responsibly, and people are willing to pay for it, then we should applaud the entrepreneurs who make it available.

Innovative companies that develop a controversial but valuable technology in a controlled, transparent, and ethical way – as Genetic Savings and Clone shows every sign of doing – should be rewarded, not ridiculed.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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