Make Way for the Cloning Express ; the Stakes Couldn't Be Higher - Possibly Altering the Future of the Human Race. How Do We Find the Proper Role for Morals and Ethics?

Article excerpt

An international team of infertility doctors announces that it will clone a human being within 18 to 24 months. A religious sect that claims UFO connections insists it will shortly do the same, and has lists of donors and surrogate mothers already lined up. A high-tech magazine trumpets the message that techniques have progressed so rapidly that scientists agree it is either just about to happen or has already taken place.

These events of recent weeks promote the impression that the human-cloning express has left the station and nothing can be done to stop it. But while scientists agree the techniques are widely reported and accessible, many have joined the public hue and cry - and the renewed efforts to institute bans against it.

The Italian medical association threatened Severino Antinori, the doctor leading the cloning consortium, with the loss of his right to practice medicine. Israel brushed off a bid by an Israeli member of the team to locate the lab there. And a US congressional committee called the various players to a hearing last week as the first step in passing a legislative ban, with backing from the White House.

The provocative announcement in Rome brought to the fore the same deep global concerns that greeted the debut of Dolly, the sheep, in 1997 - the awareness that emerging biotechnologies represent unprecedented powers of control over human beings and the natural world. Far from calming the unease, rapid successes in the cloning of other types of animals have more recently brought mounting evidence of severe abnormalities.

"I don't think there is a single normal clone in existence," said Rudolph Jaenisch, professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at last week's hearing.

And the broad public debate that many scientists acknowledge needs to take place has yet to occur - a debate not only about cloning to create children, but also about the implications of its use in research in conjunction with other powerful technologies.

"A society that leaves such fundamental issues as human cloning or transgenic hybridization to experts is already a technocracy, not a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word," writes columnist Scott Eastham, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Are we on the fast track of the technological imperative, or will it be possible to draw some lines on ethical grounds?

Broadening the discussion

Some researchers and biotech industry members see the necessity for broad involvement in the debate in order to build public confidence. They want, they say, to avert the unhappy experience of the nuclear power industry.

Some, however, are critical of what they view as uninformed participation and of naysayers, and have criticized the National Bioethics Advisory Commission for including religious perspectives in its hearings.

The Council of Secular Humanism recently posted a "declaration in defense of cloning" on the Web - signed by several Nobel laureates - which questions whether religious thinkers are qualified to contribute. "The potential benefits of cloning may be so immense that it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning," it says.

There are also scientists, however, who recognize that religion can speak to the anxieties of the general population and to aspects of questions raised by biotechnology about what it means to be human, which science itself doesn't readily address.

Religious ethicists have been deeply engaged in biotech issues for several years, but now church groups are getting involved. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, held a three- day consultation in October on human cloning for reproductive and therapeutic purposes, and produced a set of papers for discussion within the denomination. …