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To clone or not to clone (Scripps Howard News Service) July 31, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

To clone or not to clone: That was the question before the President’s Council on Bioethics. Like Hamlet’s “to be or not to be,” it is a question of life and death. After six months of review, the government panel recently reported its response: Four more years are needed for such a weighty deliberation.

We are left to wonder whether the political pressures in Congress and the inexorable advances of technology will wait that long, and what might be accomplished in the meantime.

Human cloning is no longer science fiction and “Attach of the Clones” is just the latest Star Wars movie. Rapid advances since “Dolly” the sheep was cloned five years ago have made human cloning a realistic prospect. While the presidential panel was issuing its report, a court was asked whether the remains of baseball great Ted Williams should be cyrogenically frozen, and a company in South Korea has claimed that a cloned human embryo has been implanted in a woman’s womb. Modern technology waits for no one, not even the slow processes of government.

Fortunately President Bush had foreseen the vexing difficulties and enormous implications of cloning and had commissioned a high level panel from the fields of science, law, medicine, public policy and theology to advise him. These eighteen experts agreed unanimously that reproductive cloning – creating a human being outside of the sexual reproductive process – was unsafe and should not be permitted. They split, however, on the question of whether limited cloning for research purposes should be allowed and recommended a four-year moratorium while the country sorted out the many unresolved issues.

Despite its failure to reach consensus on research cloning, the council made important strides. For one thing, it acknowledged that cloning is not merely a scientific matter, but a topic laden with broader implications. In a recent speech, one of America’s leading scientists argued that we should leave research policy on matters such as cloning to scientists. Since we do not leave military policy entirely in the hands of generals, or control of an air space to the discretion of pilots, one had to wonder at this “trust us” approach. Happily both the diverse composition of the panel and its wide-ranging report acknowledge that many have a stake in this issue, not just scientists.

Another strength of the panel’s report was its careful handling of two different types of human cloning: that which is designed to produce a child, and that which is meant to produce only cells for research. The former was rejected as unsafe, while the latter received support from some panelists, because of the prospect of curing disease and saving lives, and disapproval from others due to moral concerns about using and discarding human embryos.

Of course no report is perfect, and this one left the hardest questions begging. For example, the firm “no” on reproductive cloning came for reasons of safety, not morality. When human cloning becomes more dependable, and cloned embryos do not face grave dangers of defects, even this apparently strong disapproval rests on shifting ground and could be reversed.

On research cloning, the panel divided and finally agreed on the moratorium-a “no for now” approach. But a close reading of the report leaves one to wonder whether, at least on moral grounds, research cloning is really all that different from reproductive cloning. The same human embryos are used in both, but in research, they can be employed for the first fourteen days of “life.” As law professors would query their students, if fourteen days, why not twenty-eight, or fifty-six? There is little scientific basis for differentiating in the nature of the embryos at fourteen days. The difference is the use to which they are put: creating a baby or doing research. The moral and theological questions about “life” are the same.

Government must catch up with this brave new world. The slow-moving legislative process may have been sufficient for the agricultural and industrial ages but it is not keeping pace with difficult questions in the technology era. By the time Congress can act on corporate governance and accounting, for example, the high volume and rapid speed of stock trading has already rendered a verdict. While we debate the moral and policy questions of cloning, research labs around the world are in high gear. Hamlet was not able to request a four-year sabbatical to ponder “to be or not to be,” and government may not have that luxury either.

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