Ever wanted an identical twin? Recent announcements by scientists may mean that it is not too late for you to realize this dream. Although it may sound more like a cover story from The Weekly World News, talk of human cloning has become a hot topic in mainstream media. The story comes complete with monsters, grotesque deformities and a couple of mad scientists in an undisclosed foreign location. Without swift and decisive action from our legislators, the plot line from The Island of Dr. Moreau may become less fiction than fact.
Despite the illegality of human cloning in the United States, United Kingdom and European Union, several research groups have expressed a desire to proceed with human cloning technology. Dr. Panayiotis Zavos, a noted scientist at the University of Kentucky, resigned his position last month and announced plans to collaborate with an Italian fertility doctor, Severino Antinori, to produce the first cloned human being. The doctors plan to avoid legal difficulties by performing their research in a country with more permissive standards on human experimentation.
Meanwhile, a second group, Clonaid, founded by a religious organization called the Raelian Movement, has announced plans to clone humans in the United States. The Raelians believe that all life on Earth was created by extraterrestrial scientists. They are working with many couples who are interested in cloning children, including a father who is devastated by the death of his son and wants a new copy.
Cloning technology first made headlines four years ago with the birth of Dolly the sheep. Dolly was created by injecting a somatic cell from a donor sheep into an egg stripped of its own DNA. The egg was then implanted into a surrogate sheep that carried it through gestation. The resulting sheep was an identical copy of the original donor. Since Dolly, scientists have managed to clone mice, cattle, goats and pigs. There is no doubt that this technology could be used to clone humans. However, the researchers who cloned Dolly are strongly opposed to human experimentation. They claim that most clones do not survive – over 90 percent of cattle fetuses do not make it to full term, while it took 276 failed attempts to produce Dolly. And even if a clone is born, it may suffer from a variety of severe defects, including heart, immune, brain and other abnormalities.
The resurgence in debate over human cloning has sparked a new round of talks aimed at strengthening legislation against such experimentation in the U.S. Two weeks ago, scientists spoke before a congressional panel and expressed their concerns about the logistics and ethics of human cloning. Although current Food and Drug Administration regulations do not permit human cloning because of safety concerns, many are worried that federal law may not be strong enough to back up the FDA’s authority. At present, the maximum penalty for engaging in this research is $100,000 and a year in prison. Cloning opponents want to see tougher sanctions and a complete ban in place, even if safety concerns are satisfied.
Congress worked on legislation banning human cloning a couple of years ago, but failed to produce a bill. One of the difficulties was how to create a ban on human cloning without stifling medical research that uses similar technology. However, with rogue research groups prepared to flagrantly disregard present laws, both the president and Congress seem willing to address this issue on ethical grounds. And that is probably the most appropriate place for this debate to take place.
While feasibility concerns are important, the real question is not whether we can do this, but whether we should do this. Human cloning is a huge moral and evolutionary leap. This is not a mere extension of in vitro fertilization techniques; it is a move towards asexual reproduction. The implications cannot be understated. Human cloning on a large scale will reduce diversity in the gene pool and promote eugenics – think Ethan Hawke in Gattaca. And even if the adult donor is a willing participant in the cloning experiment, the cloned child has no say.
The government must take action. Whether it chooses to adopt this technology – so as to research and regulate it – or whether it creates a moratorium and advocates an international treaty banning human cloning, it is clear that the government cannot turn a blind eye to this issue. We cannot allow science to outpace ethics.