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Rewriting Life

Good-bye Dolly,...

…unless the government permits, oversees, and funds sensible cloning research

Late in May, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, an 18-member panel of experts in medicine, law, and ethics, is scheduled to give President Bill Clinton some novel science advice. It will recommend possible federal actions to prevent abuse of science’s new-found ability to clone adult mammals-that is, to produce exact genetic copies of an existing animal from a single body cell.

The cause of this unprecedented fast-track activity is, of course, a sweet-faced Scottish sheep named Dolly. We can debate whether Dolly is, as one columnist would have it, the biggest story of the century. But persuading DNA from a specialized adult cell to return to its youthful undifferentiated state and initiate a brand-new life is surely a milestone in biology, and offers a lesson in why seasoned observers of science never say “never.”

We can already glimpse a few of the practical applications of cloning, such as duplicating especially productive livestock and saving vanishing species. But if the clones can be genetically engineered-the next goal of Dolly’s developers at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh-the possibilities expand to include medicine: herds of identical animals that function as living drug factories, producing medically valuable proteins in their blood or milk; animal models for studying human diseases and testing treatments; pigs whose immune systems have been designed to make their organs more suitable for transplantation into sick people.

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As is the case with any trailblazing scientific development, cloning’s most important consequences doubtless lie hidden in the mists of the future, although we can assume that some of them will likely astound us. A lot of people fear that the most astounding will be a world of Frankenstein’s monsters: clones of human beings. There are many technical hurdles between here and there, but the experts are pretty sure that what can be done with sheep can eventually also be done with Homo sapiens.

Few people have been able to think of good reasons for cloning humans, but everybody seems to be able to imagine the nightmares. Consider, for example, a world without sex because cloning does away with fathers. Or endless duplicates of individuals-Nobel laureates, movie stars, criminal masterminds, fascist dictators, whoever-created with or without their knowledge. Or how about raising the dead, literally, from the cells of corpses?

It’s no wonder that Dolly is causing some of us to come unglued. President Clinton dealt quickly with this ostensible national emergency and immediately declared a moratorium on human cloning. This stops nothing, since as far as we know, no such research is actually going on. To be fair, the president was reportedly trying to head off some much more panicky legislation. Still, the proposals began tumbling in anyway. A Michigan congressman, for example, would permanently ban human cloning; violators would be fined $5,000. A New York legislator thought such punishment a wrist-slap; he wanted to send human cloners to prison for 7 years. “We’re dealing with something of great concern to humanity,” he said. “We ought not to permit a cottage industry in the God business.”

But it is precisely out of concern for humanity, and to prevent a rush into the God business, that we should resist the urge to ban, much less to criminalize, such research. We should learn from our mistakes. Recall that when test-tube babies burst into the world in the 1970s they provoked much the same consternation as Dolly. I was among those who urged the government to stay out of this field. Many voiced moral or religious objections to research with early human embryos. I did not, but I thought then (and still think) that solving people’s fertility problems should not be high on the wish list of the National Institutes of Health. The naysayers won the argument-so thoroughly, in fact, that using government money for research with human embryos remains forbidden in the United States to this day.

I regret this profoundly. In addition to its retarding effect on some useful research, forcing test-tube baby work into private labs has meant that the fertility industry, essentially unregulated, has pretty much run its own show. Or perhaps I should say, circus: In California, eggs and embryos stolen from scores of women were distributed to researchers and implanted in other women. In Britain, thousands of frozen embryos were destroyed because their parents failed to claim them, despite the Vatican’s exhortations that the embryos be “adopted”-brought to term by 6,000 volunteer moms. Around the world, some fertility centers have claimed fictitious rates of pregnancy success. Such claims not only attract customers but keep them trying over and over-at a cost of some $10,000 each time. Yes, many thousands of test-tube babies have been born, but for every successful couple, four others are sent away in despair.

The surest way to guarantee that cloning-whether of animal or human cells-will be misused is to forbid it or restrict it to private labs, which will drive it out of the light of day. The simplest way to forestall such an outcome is for us citizens to underwrite some cloning research (although, to foster rational discourse, probably not on human cells, at least not at first). As today’s biology goes, that research would not be terribly costly, and there are reasonable scientific and practical arguments for doing it-exploring its potential in feeding people and curing their ills and in other useful applications that we cannot yet foresee. It would give us grounds for formal oversight if that became desirable. And thanks to scientific exchanges at meetings and over the Internet, not to mention scientific gossip, we would improve our chances of learning what’s going on in private labs as well as government-funded ones.

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