Cloning: Is Man About to Make Himself In His Own Image?

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Is Man About to Make Himself In His Own Image?

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Likely most of you would say, "God would never allow man to clone himself." Don't be too sure!

Multiplicity, a zany movie released a few years ago, centered around the comedic plot of an overworked building contractor that had himself cloned in order to meet the many demands on his time. The idea that a genetic engineer could copy a man like a Xerox machine copies a document was, of course, absurd!

But the idea of cloning a human being is far from absurd in light of stunning developments in the world of science. While geneticists cannot instantly make a fully mature adult like the movie, cloning is no longer science fiction.

Cloning research and experimentation has been conducted for four decades, but it underwent a dramatic breakthrough with the successful cloning of a sheep known around the world as Dolly. That was in 1996. The event exploded upon the scientific community, for most believed that genuine cloning was simply impossible.

What is cloning? It is the production of an exact genetic replica. Dolly is the exact duplicate-in every detail-of a sheep that was six years old when its clone was born. The older sheep was neither mother nor father to Dolly. Its contribution was a single cell taken from its udder and stored in a laboratory freezer until the series of experiments that led to the creation of Dolly were conducted.

How Is It Done?

How is cloning accomplished? Here is a brief and greatly simplified explanation. In the making of Dolly, Dr. Ian Wilmut, an embryologist, took a healthy egg cell and removed its nucleus. Taking the frozen udder cell from the adult sheep, he fused its nucleus into the shell of the egg cell. Providing a minute electrical charge, he was able to "fool" the egg cell into beginning to divide and grow just as if it had been fertilized.

No longer having the DNA of its original nucleus, it used the DNA of the implanted nucleus as its "blueprint" or genetic code for producing life-in this case, Dolly. Dolly is a normal sheep in every sense and recently gave birth to offspring of her own.

Other clones have been made since the creation of Dolly. Last year scientists at the University of Hawaii announced they had successfully cloned 50 mice. Geneticists say that the genetic makeup of mice is very close to that of humans. (Really!) The genes are lined up differently for mice. (For which we are thankful!)

Does it have anything to do with humans? Is all of this research serious? Is it leading to anything significant? It cannot be more serious!

"Give a Dog a Clone"

Under the clever title "Give a Dog a Clone," BBC News reported in August that an American millionaire has paid five million dollars to hire a cloning expert from Texas A&M University to create a clone of his pet dog. Sound crazy? Should the story be dismissed, chalked up to the eccentricity of a wealthy man? To do so would be to ignore a scientific watershed of far-reaching consequences.

According to Lee Silver, professor of genetics at Princeton University, "the incredible thing is that if you can affect the technology in lots of different animals it makes it that much more likely it's going to move to human beings [emphasis mine throughout]" (© 1998 BBC News).

Is it really possible to clone a human being? Dr. Wilmut, the scientist that cloned Dolly says yes! "There is no reason in principle why you couldn't do it" (Clone by Gina Kolata, © 1998 Gina Kolata). Other scientists agree, including genetics expert Steen Willadsen: "It is a relatively simple procedure. There must be hundreds of people who would be able to do it now. It would only take a couple of years plus the obligatory nine months" (The Race to Clone the First Human, © 1998 BBC News).

The question is not, "Can it be done?" But "Should it be done?" Doctor Wilmut thinks it unlikely, saying "all of us [scientists capable of cloning] find that offensive" (Op. Cit., Clone). However, his thinking is not shared by all.

Lee Silver said, "There are definitely going to be human clones" (op. Cit. BBC News). The same article quotes Dr. Willadsen offering agreement that many laboratories would eagerly take on the task. Gina Kolata reports that most "infertility experts, asked if humans will one day be cloned, replied, 'Of course'" (op Cit. Clone).

Even more shocking is the assertion made by Dr. Willadsen to Ms. Kolata that he thinks "humans may have already been cloned-accidentally" in fertility clinics.

The Medical Argument

What is the driving force behind cloning research? The hope of medical applications is a primary one. For example, it is terribly expensive, difficult and often unsuccessful to match bone marrow needed for transplantation. Geneticists hope to grow bone marrow by cloning and engineering a cell from the patient him/herself. There would never be a problem of matching bone marrow again.

It sounds almost miraculous, doesn't it? Other items included on the "dream list" include growing solid organs, like heart, livers or kidneys. Burn victims could grow their own skin for grafting. There would never again be a fear of the body rejecting donated tissue.

Some scientists hope to create animals whose organs are perfect matches for transplanting into humans. As sci-fi as this sounds, it is possible to add a human gene to the genes of an animal in order to create the desired result. Once made, this "wonder animal" can be cloned as often as needed.

J. Madeleine Nash, in "The Case for Cloning" (© 1998 Time magazine) argues that the potential benefit to genetic research should weigh heavily in any debate about cloning. Genes that cause rare and difficult to treat diseases can conceivably be identified and snipped from the DNA string before a cloned embryonic cell begins to grow.

In glowing terms about the possibilities opened by cloning, the author writes, "An elderly man develops macular degeneration, a disease that destroys vision. To bolster his failing eyesight, he receives a transplant of healthy retinal tissue-cloned from his own cells and cultivated in a lab dish.

"A baby girl was born free of the gene that causes Tay-Sachs disease, even though both her parents are carriers. The reason? In the embryonic cell from which she was cloned, the flawed gene was replaced with normal DNA."

Such a shimmering vision of the future, enabled by cloning, glosses over serious problems.

Are Serious Problems Being Glossed Over?

Having told her readers of the grand possibilities granted by cloning, Nash also acknowledges issues of concern that have neither been addressed nor resolved. While genetic engineering can help to eliminate inherited diseases, parents may well choose to use the same technology to try to "improve" their children by eliminating genes that cause alcoholism and obesity-or even to manipulate intelligence and athletic ability.

She concludes her article with the cheerfully optimistic suggestion that "sensible action" can prevent the worst-case scenarios feared by many. Much easier said than done.

Ruth Macklin, a professor of bioethics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, argues that we should not be in a hurry to say no to cloning. "Even if human cloning offers no obvious benefits to humanity, why ban it? …And if it is ever attempted, it should-and no doubt will-take place only with careful scrutiny and layers of legal oversight" ("Human Cloning? Don't Just Say No," © U.S. News 1997).

Experience proves that it is not as simple as she makes it sound to institute those "layers of legal oversight." Legislators are wrestling with controversy as they attempt to create guidelines and provide oversight for cloning. Where laws have been enacted, they have been met with angry criticism from the scientific community.

Fearing coming restrictions, scientists "… are speeding matters up now in the hope they can break the taboo on cloning before it is made illegal" (op. Cit. "The Race to Clone the First Human").

Startling Things Being Done by Reproductive Science

One of the most controversial fields affected by cloning is that of reproductive science. Ruth Macklin, quoted above, writes that, "Infertile couples are likely to seek out cloning. That such couples have other options (in vitro fertilization or adoption) is not an argument for denying them the right to clone" (op Cit.).

There is strong interest in the field of reproductive science in cloning human embryos. "It is such an attractive idea, said Robert Anderson, who is director of the Southern California Center for Reproductive Medicine in Newport Beach, that 'I guarantee somebody, someplace, is working on it right now.'" (op. Cit. Clone).

Shocking as it might seem, fertility experts presently operate virtually without regulation. "'There are no hard-and-fast rules; there is no legislation,'' said Arthur Wisot, the executive director of the Center for Advanced Reproductive Care in Redondo Beach, California. 'This whole area of medicine is totally unregulated. We don't answer to anyone but our peers'" (op. Cit. Clone).

Gina Kolata wrote that a doctor told her as early as May of 1997 that he had been contacted by three women [all under the age of 45] who "wanted him to add the DNA from one of their husband's cells to an egg from a donor, whose own DNA had been removed. That would produce a clone of the husband. Alternatively, doctors might add the genes from one of the woman's cells to a donor egg, producing a clone of the wife"(op. Cit.).

Many organizations, as well as governments, have voiced opposition to the concept of cloning. Japan has banned human cloning, and 19 European nations have signed an anti-cloning treaty. "But not every organization was opposed to the cloning of humans. In New York, a pro-cloning group sprang up, the Clone Rights United Front, whose members included gay men and lesbians who wanted to clone themselves. The lesbians envisioned taking a cell from one woman and implanting it in another, thus creating a baby without the presence of a man" (op Cit. Clone).

What a disgusting thought.

Is There Knowledge That We Do Not Want?

Because Ms. Kolata's book is so powerfully written, I want to conclude this article with several thought-provoking excerpts from it.

Cloning forces us back to the most basic questions that have plagued humankind since the dawn of recorded time: what is good and what is evil? And how much potential for evil can we tolerate to obtain something that might be good? We live in a time when sin is becoming one of those quaint words that we might hear in church but that has little to do with our daily world. Cloning, however, with its possibilities for creating our own identical twins, brings us back to the ancient sins of vanity and pride… In a time when we hear the rallying cries of reproductive freedom…and the rights of people to do what they want

Is there, in fact, knowledge that we do not want? Are there paths we'd rather not pursue?

The time is long past when we can speak of the purity of science, divorced from its consequences… Before the [atomic] bomb was made, [J. Robert] Oppenheimer said, "When you see something that is technically sweet you go ahead and do it." After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in a chilling speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1947, he said: "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." As with the atom bomb, cloning is complex, multilayered in its threats and its promises.

What is at issue, [Leon] Kass [biochemist turned philosopher at the University of Chicago] said, "is nothing less than whether human procreation is going to remain human, whether children are going to be made rather than begotten… This is one of those critical moments [when] one gets a chance to think about terribly important things. Not just genetics and what is the meaning of mother and father and kinship, but also the whole relationship between science and society and attitudes toward technology… The future of humanity may hang in the balance."

As science hastens forward in this incredible field, I cannot help thinking of God's sobering words of Genesis 11:6. "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (Revised Standard Version). WNP