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4 REASONS TO STEP BACK FROM CLONING


By Marc Lappe. Marc Lappe is director of the Center for Ethics and Toxics. He formerly was head of the medical...

March 8, 2001

At a recent news conference in Lexington, Ky., a researcher announced that he had lined up 10 infertile patients who want to be cloned. Before we take the plunge over this cultural precipice "Survivor-style" and actually clone one of these people, let's take a long and hard look at what we may be doing.

Cloning is a method of artificial reproduction initially perfected on the South African clawed toad. It involves removing the nucleus from cells taken from normal body tissue, such as skin or intestine and injecting them into fertilized eggs. The new genetic material is substituted for the fertilized egg's own genetic material, which is typically either removed or destroyed. With a little encouragement (a small electrical pulse can be used), the newly enhanced egg cell can be teased into an initial division. If all goes well, some nine months later a normal-appearing child will be born with a remarkable set of genetic instructions.

Unlike all previous models, such as identical twins, this genetically identical person will have a genome that has already been "tried out" in the real world. We will have chosen this set of instructions because, presumably, it worked once before.

But is our optimism likely to be justified? New science suggests again that genes won't guarantee every trait will be faithfully reproduced along with their DNA. Genes are not everything they are purported to be. And what of the expectations we overlay on the first, experimental clone? Doesn't every child have a right to an unmanipulated inheritance?

Aside from the motivations of the researchers and the first, self-appointed experimental subjects, can any cloning experimentation be justified? The strongest arguments come from people whose own procreation has been cut off because of factors outside their control.

Consider a couple that is sterile because of cell damage to their sex cells as a result of environmental factors. The only way they can have a child is through cloning one of them. The female in the pair is willing to carry the child. Or consider this scenario: a member of a threatened cultural group, in fact the last surviving male member, has been irreversibly damaged because of the intrusion of civilization and wants to perpetuate his unique ethnic type. Or what about a South African miner who was overexposed to radiation as a result of being forced to work in a deep gold mine, such that his reproductive cells have been damaged? Each of these cases pulls at our emotions and draws us up short. Don't these people deserve to be cloned?

Of course, once we permit "need" to dictate use of the technology, the list of candidates will rapidly fill with the justified and genuinely needy: the banana worker who has been sterilized through overexposure to a particularly pernicious chemical; the Navajo uranium miner who cannot procreate his kind; the Kurdish, Iraqi war-victim who was gassed with mustard gas, a terrible mutagen. Don't they all have a claim on our new cloning technology--and before that of a couple who are merely "infertile"?

As much as these cases tug at our moral heart strings they fail to come to grips with four fundamental realities: (1) cloning will not guarantee a healthy child, much less a faithful recreation of the genetic makeup of the donor; (2) given the present democratic institutions in our country, no one can claim they have a right to be cloned; (3) comparable medical technology can be used to help many more people to a healthy life--without having to clone them; and (4) we can't get there from here without some egregious violations of our moral and ethical principles.

A quick mental imaging technique will show that every existing model for a clone requires we sacrifice some other embryo whose genetics was not fixed or predetermined. Recall that virtually all cloning to date has relied on killing the genetic prospects of a given fertilized egg and substituting a new genetic plan. Secondly, while we are banking on the geneticists' assurances that the "genes make the man," it is highly likely that our expectations for the first clones will be dashed, even if they were successful. This is so because genes change over time, they age, acquire mutations and generally lose their integrity to be faithfully duplicated. A clone may "pick up" where the donor left off, agewise. Or more egregiously, it may suffer horrendous birth defects incompatible with normal life as happened to a significant portion of Dolly's predecessors.

The idea that a bad clone will simply give science a black eye is not a good moral reason for holding back. No one has an inalienable right to reproduce, much less perpetuate her own genetic makeup, no matter how unique. Moreover, the dedication of the resources needed to secure the first "successful" clone will of necessity co-opt desperately needed fertility services--and force some gender-specific member of the species (a woman again) to agree to be a surrogate. Can we socially justify this sacrifice, even if the surrogate volunteered freely?

To replicate in the fertility clinic the success of our first mammalian clone (Dolly the sheep) would probably occupy its services for a full two years, and require the elimination of hundreds of otherwise fertile embryos that might have been implanted in the sterile wombs of many equally deserving mothers unable to bear children of their own.

This separation of procreation from conjugal relations and the family setting is likely to be culturally wrenching for the first couples. Like the Dionne quintuplets who suffered terribly in the public eye for most of their childhood, the first cloned child would find itself a freak of nature, mutually admired and abhorred by different factions in society. Do we have a right to subject an innocent child to such injustice and likely approbation? Or to hide it from public eye like we did with Joseph Carey Merrick, the original "Elephant Man?"

And what of the initial experiments on the unborn that will inevitably fail? How do we garner an acceptable consent from parents driven by desperation to sacrifice so many? Much of the more subtle damage in animal clones has shown up only one or more generations after the first one was cloned. Does not this in itself negate the ethics of a cloning experiment? According to the original Nuremberg Code developed at the end of WWII to prevent future abuses of medical research subjects, every experimental subject should have the right to terminate his experiment. How would we ever get an acceptable consent from future generations?

And finally, where did we in Western society get the idea that we had an inalienable right to procreate? With so many adoptive children languishing in halfway houses and foster homes, the idea of investing the hundreds of thousands of dollars into a single cloning enterprise smacks of the ultimate hubris. To give a few wealthy clients the unique access to these exotic and critical technologies--many developed through public funds and donations--is the ultimate insult to the principles of a democratic society. We should say no to this dangerous adventure--now.

 


 

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