When Dolly the cloned sheep’s existence was revealed to the world ten years ago, panic ensued. World leaders, including presidents Clinton and Bush, the pope, and numerous prime ministers, spent the next few months condemning Dolly’s creation and warning about the horror of human cloning.
At the time, my view was that there was no reason for panic. It took more than 250 pregnancies to produce Dolly, and the odds of that same cloning process working in humans were not great. In the years since Dolly was born, the only scientist who claimed any success in cloning human embryos was Professor Hwang Woo-suk. He was forced to resign in disgrace when it became clear that he had fabricated his evidence for cloning.
In the ten years since the creation of Dolly, no scientists anywhere in the world had managed to clone any sort of primate. No monkey, gorilla, chimp, bonobo, or orangutan embryos or adults were cloned. The announcement in November from Oregon that a slight modification in the chemicals used in the Dolly cloning process had allowed researchers at the Oregon Regional Primate Center to make twenty cloned monkey embryos has changed everything. Since what works in monkeys tends to work in us, it is time for politicians and potentates to once again pay attention to cloning. What should they do? Not much.
There are two reasons to try to apply cloning to people. One is to create embryos so that stem cells can be taken from them and used to develop treatments against disease. The other is to make a clone of you or me. It is reproductive cloning that seems to engender the most fear on the part of the public.
No one who is in a position to actually try to apply to humans what the Oregon scientists did with monkeys has any interest in using cloning to reproduce or mass-produce people. While the Oregon researchers did make monkey embryos, they could not get a viable pregnancy from any of them. This means that cloning to create adults is still very hard to do and certainly very dangerous to try.
The risk of making deformed or stillborn human children by cloning is huge—so huge that talk about reproductive cloning will still be confined for the immediate future to nuts, kooks, cultists, and cranks who have no shot at success. It is so risky that, for now, there ought to be a ban on human reproductive cloning—carrying a penalty of jail time—until further work in primates proves that cloning can safely be used to make healthy primates.
The other major reason for cloning ourselves—to have a source of human embryos—is less morally controversial and more likely to work than other options. Up until now, the fight about the ethics and funding of embryonic stem cell research has presupposed either making human embryos using sperm and egg or using already existing embryos that are unclaimed and unwanted at in vitro fertilization clinics. Cloned embryos would be a better source, morally and scientifically.
Why? From a scientific point of view, cloned embryos are best. If you make some cloned embryos by putting DNA from, say, your own skin or tongue cell into an egg from which the DNA has been removed, then you have embryos whose stem cells can be used to repair diseases and injuries in your own body with-out fear of the body’s immune system rejecting the cells as foreign tissue. People could use their own cells to make stem cells that could then effortlessly be put back into their own bodies to repair damaged hearts, severed spinal cords, or worn-out parts of the brain that lead to Parkinson’s disease.
The Oregon announcement is very welcome news if you suffer from diabetes, nerve damage, paralysis, or heart failure. Cloning human embryos using the Oregon technique should jump-start embryonic stem cell research that uses an individual’s cells to begin the process.
There are two primary ethical concerns with this type of stem cell research. First, it is argued that cloning human embryos will make it too tempting to use them for reproduction as well as research. Second, critics hold that it is murder to clone human embryos solely to destroy them and harvest their stem cells.
If laws are passed prohibiting implantation of cloned human embryos into a woman’s body, as has been done in a few countries such as Britain, then this will be just as effective a prohibition on reproductive cloning as on the creation of cloned human embryos. Make it a crime to clone for reproduction, and you will have done all you can do to prevent it.
And while it is true that the creation of stem cells means destroying a cloned embryo, a cloned embryo in a lab dish has no ability or potential to develop into a person. It is at best a possible person—not an actual one. Moreover, we already know that nearly all cloned embryos are so miswired that very few are capable of becoming healthy adult organisms. This diminished potential makes it far more ethical to use cloned human embryos for embryonic stem cell research than human embryos created solely for research purposes.
It has taken ten years, but the prospect of human cloning has now inched very close to becoming a reality. We don’t need politicians to panic or religious leaders to decompensate. We need sound public policies that will prevent the premature use of reproductive cloning, while opening the door to the use of cloning for stem cell research.