In 1996, researchers at Scotland's Roslin Institute successfully cloned the first mammal. Dolly, the now famous sheep, is known around the globe. The announcement in February 1997 of Dolly's existence shocked the world. Suddenly, people realized that human cloning was within reach. In the United States, President Bill Clinton established a bioethics commission to study human cloning and proposed a law banning research on it for five years. Currently federal funds cannot be used for such studies.
Mammal cloning is just one of many astonishing feats accomplished by biologists. In the 1960's, scientists cloned a frog. In 1978, the first "test-tube" baby was produced. Embryonic cloning (artificially inducing what would become twins, quadruplets, etc.) of mammals including humans has already been carried out, and in a few cases, e.g. sheep, the embryos have been allowed to develop into full-fledged adults. One can only speculate what the future has in store: extending human life expectancies to several hundred years or perhaps indefinitely, the reproduction of extinct species from DNA, and the creation of new life forms that have never existed on Earth. These and other feats may be achievable within the next century or two. A footnote to The Bible According to Einstein's Book of Biology reads, "This book is unfinished, for human knowledge about the living is limited. Each day a new page of biology is written. The pages are and will be assembled. And when the book is finished, man will have the understanding to answer fundamental questions: What makes that which is dead, dead, and what makes that which is alive, alive? And when the book is finished, man will have the power to manufacture life. And man, shall, at that point, have one of the great powers of a god." For those of us who have not yet comprehended the consequences of bio-technology, the possibilities can be frightening.
Cellular cloning plays an important role in bio-medical research. Studying a single cell is difficult because of its tiny size. Since experimentation is easier to perform on a batch of cells, researchers use cloning methods to create countless copies. This is done daily in laboratories throughout the world.
The genetic cloning of a larger organism is a more delicate procedure. The nucleus containing the DNA of the donor is removed and placed into an egg cell, which acts as a host. With proper stimulus and a bit of luck, the egg cell is tricked into repeatedly dividing, thereby producing many cells that can mature into a living creature. If successful, the resulting organism is a genetic copy of the donor. As environmental factors set in, the clone acquires features slightly different from it progenitor.
On Tuesday January 6, a 69-year-old scientist who lives just outside of Chicago announced on National Public Radio that he intends to assemble a team of experts with the purpose of cloning a human being. Ironically his last name is "Seed". Richard Seed, who has a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and who has expertise in fertility research, is trying to raise funds for a human cloning project. More than $1 million is needed. The procedure would begin as described in the previous paragraph, but when the developing embryo is of sufficient size, it would be implanted in a woman's womb. Dr. Seed believes that the method will allow infertile couples to have children. This type of reproduction is asexual since the genetic codes come from a single individual. The donor of the DNA can in principle be anybody, although it is expected that the woman or her husband will supply the genetic material. Dr. Seed also states that many years from now, human cloning technology might help extend the life expectancy of people. Great sums of money are likely to be made from cloning research.
Dr. Seed's announcement has created a public outcry. An overwhelming majority of scientists and doctors oppose the project. Some think that Richard Seed is "unhinged." Others doubt that any legitimate researcher would collaborate on such a project at this time. However, given the hundreds of thousands of bio-medical experts, there might be a few willing to risk their reputation. They would be going against the voluntary five-year moratorium on the cloning of human beings established by President Clinton and adopted by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and other organizations. If Dr. Seed succeeds in assembling a bio-medical team, it will probably force those in Washington to introduce anti-cloning legislation. This could actually have a negative impact on biological research, if currently permitted (non-human) cloning methods are restricted. Politicians had originally hoped that common sense would suffice in policing this kind of research. The profit motive is a corrupting factor, potentially leading someone to commit an immoral or illegal act.
If anti-cloning laws in the United States are established, Dr. Seed said that he would take his project "off-shore". Mexico and the Caribbean have been cited as possibilities. Dr. Seed has also incensed the religious community. This began when he accused his critics as having a rather small view of God. He said that he was a Christian and had no moral qualms about his proposal. Later, he even went as far as to say that God intended for man to become one with God and that cloning and reprogramming of DNA is a step in this direction. Many researchers were repelled by such statements, feeling that Seed had badly mixed up issues of science with issues of religion. The clergy has also responded. A minister of the United Church of Christ has reportedly said that for Seed to think he has God's blessing for his experiments is blasphemous. Moslem scholars in Pakistan have condemned Seed's project, and the Christian Medical and Dental Society has issued similar statements denouncing the project.
But Dr. Seed faces other hurdles to overcome besides public and political pressures. Very little is known about human cloning. To this date only one mammal, Dolly, has been cloned and this occurred only after more than 250 attempts. Some of these failures took place just before or just after birth. Many embryos were enlarged in size. This is perhaps not surprising since aged DNA is put into the eggs. It is hard to imagine a woman willing to risk the potentially repeated death of her newborns, a baby with cancer, or the possibility of a deformed offspring, not to mention the pressures that she would be subjected to from media coverage and public discussion. The procedure might also be dangerous for the mother. Nevertheless there exist couples desperate for a child, and Dr. Seed claims to have several willing mothers. He has stated that with the team and research funds in place, a human could be cloned in about two years, just at the beginning of the third millennium. He might be a little optimistic in this regard. There is almost an overwhelming opinion that the science of mammal cloning is at too early a stage to be considered for human beings. Indeed, all attempts to clone mice have failed. It took more than 3 billion years for the microbe to develop into the mammal. During this period, evolution has perfected many amazing biological processes. By examining them today, researchers profit from nature's trial and error experiments. Biologists are making major discoveries on a monthly basis. But there is a lot to learn from nature, and mammal cloning is going to take years to perfect.
One of Jupiter Scientific's staff members (not necessarily representing the opinion of all of the company's employees) said that "attempting human cloning at this time is like trying to assemble an atomic bomb by bringing together random amounts of Uranium-235. If you put too much material together, it goes critical and explodes. Extensive testing and analysis is a prerequisite for such a project. We certainly do not want human cloning to explode in our face. Time is needed to sort out the scientific and moral issues."
These moral considerations are important. With only one successfully cloned mammal, the rate of birth defects is unknown. Many cloned frogs ended up infertile. Since asexual reproduction is involved, it is possible that a reasonable fraction of the babies cloned with the current techniques will be deformed. What should one do in such a case? Will some people regard clones as simply "shadows" of their progenitors? Or even worse, will clones be treated as objects? Will the cloned infant have psychological problems? Will she/he view herself/himself as a Frankenstein of science? And there are more basic questions. Should multiple copies of a human be permitted? Given that we live in an interconnected world, should international laws be established? Should cloning be combined with eugenics? At a fundamental level, is human cloning morally acceptable? Undoubtedly, there is a wide range of opinions and answers to these questions. The issues are as explosive as abortion and the right to die. It will probably take years to form a consensus about the sensitive matter of human cloning. Regardless of the outcome, some people will be upset.
Science is the study of the physical world,
the things we see, hear and touch.
Science is becoming increasingly important,
playing an ever-bigger role in our lives.
By better understanding nature,
we learn to extract technologies that benefit all of us.
But science cannot say what is right or wrong,
or what is good or bad.
Only people can decide such things.
When explosive issues such as human cloning arise,
it is important that a proper debate takes place.
The input of scientists, politicians, intellectuals,
the clergy and the public at large is needed.
Education is also important.
People need to understand science
as best as they can to make the crucial decisions.
Biology is advancing rapidly.
In the case of human cloning,
time is needed to sort out the implications.