Cloning conundrum

The Right has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde complex about artificial human cloning. Mild-mannered social conservatives fall over one another in disgust at the prospect while Libertarians seemingly stand behind a lab bench, cackling with glee at every new advance in cloning technology.

In a National Review Online column published earlier this year, author Wesley J. Smith opined, “Widespread acceptance of cloning would be a deathblow to the sanctity/equality of life ethic – the cornerstone of Western liberty from which sprang our still unrealized dream of universal human rights.” Mr. Smith added, “Cloning stands in stark opposition to this equalitarian dream. It is – and always has been, the quintessential eugenic enterprise.”

In contrast, Reason magazine correspondent Ronald Bailey suggested, “A dread of scientific and technological progress is taking hold among conservative intellectuals.” In his article “The Twin Paradox: What exactly is wrong with cloning people?” Bailey contends, “Most of the arguments against cloning amount to little more than a reformulation of the old familiar refrain of Luddites everywhere: “If God had meant for man to fly, he would have given us wings.'”

The mapping of the human genome may have accelerated the debate, but eugenics via human cloning remains a lofty prospect. Enormous technical difficulties must be resolved before specific traits can be engineered into a clone. Even assuming one gene produces one trait (eye color, for example), scientist will have to sort through 30,000 genes in order to find it. Thanks to Project Genome, finding the gene that produces a trait will be the easier part. However, since countless protein switches affect the way genes work, and hence, which traits ultimately appear, producing a desired trait is a different story. Rest assured, eugenicist-wannabes won’t have their designer genes on the market for a while to come.

The cloning process is almost as difficult. Dolly was created on the 377th try, and such ugly percentages are the norm when it comes to animal cloning. It is also one of the primary reasons that many, ranging from President George W. Bush to Carl B. Feldbaum, President of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, are opposed to attempts to clone humans.

Despite these obstacles, even those individuals who oppose artificial human cloning also agree that enormous benefits could, and probably will, come from attempts to clone specific human cells and tissues. Anyone who has a friend or a loved one on a waiting list for an organ transplant can appreciate the need for such technology. Proper use of such technologies could also result in cures to any number of diseases, ranging from various cancers to Alzheimer’s.

So what is to be done? Should we stand by and wait for the copies to come, hoping that the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks, and that not too many lives are lost in the process? Or, should we outlaw human cloning, hoping that that not too many potentially life-saving technologies are lost and that the les-majesty of the law is enough to overcome scientists’ baser motivations?

It probably won’t matter what we do. Having been trained as a biologist, I can’t help but think that most of us will see an artificial human clone within our lifetimes. Enough willing individuals have both the resources and expertise that such a day seems inevitable. After all, most people have a way of ignoring inconvenient laws when ambitions loom larger.

Such experimentation would almost certainly have horrific results. However, when the first artificial human clone makes it to the stage of walking and talking, eating and drinking, another ethical question will arise: how should we treat it? On this question, at least, Ronald Bailey is undeniably right: “Clones are people. You must treat them like people.”

While utopian idealists have often inflicted unspeakable cruelties on other men, lesser motivations, such as anger or simple avarice have often sufficed. In of itself, then, artificial human cloning should be neither welcomed nor feared. And though we will likely resolve the technological problems that surround the process, the larger ethical questions will no doubt continue to perplex us.

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