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. …