Comments from The Outpost

Send in the Clones?

28 February 1997

by Dan Murphy

Good evening.

It's unusual for people to spend a great deal of time talking about sheep, but that's what happened this week when the reports about Dolly hit the news. Dolly, in case you just emerged from some winter hibernation, is a clone. She grew from an embryo in the usual way, but that embryo was implanted with a complete DNA structure and not the recombination of DNA from two parents.

Thus, Dolly is identical, genetically speaking, to another animal. 'Course, all sheep look pretty much alike to me, so I'm taking this accomplishment largely on faith here.

And along with news of this feat came all kinds of nattering about brave new world future possibilities of cloning humans. True, most of this had a kind of Buck Rogers and Star Wars tone to it -- entertaining, but more related to the past than to the future. Some people did say, and I think most of us actually know, that there are some important ethical questions here once we set aside the Star Trek scenarios.

Some, coming from a religious perspective, will say that any kind of human cloning puts us in the position of playing God, and that would be wrong. Others may have objections related to playing around with the essence of human life. I'm inclined to think there are more specific reasons for concerns, reasons that do not rely on any religious dogmas or abstract philosophies.

When we consider any of the possible reasons that are advanced, even if only in fantasy, for the cloning of a human being, we find that they all have one particular problem. Now, some might offend our political sense, such as the idea of a rich and powerful person cloning a copy of themselves to carry on their fortune.

Other possibilities might seem a bit more defensible, such as cloning someone be an organ donor to their genetic parent. This scenario also requires us to overlook the small matter of timing -- that is, that adult clones aren't produced instantly and it still takes the usual number of years for an embryo to reach adulthood.

There might also seem to be some appeal in cloning our heros -- those few that we still have. How about another Einstein or Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa for the benefit of humanity. It's a good thing there's no known samples of DNA from Jesus or we'd be in big trouble here.

No, the problem with all these ideas is that they place an unwarranted and unacceptable requirement on the person -- the actual human being -- to be born as a result of this process. Even though such a person may be the genetic twin of another, that person would have every right to choose their own path in life, and it could well be a very different one than was expected. Genetic inheritance is, after all, far from being the only factor that determines how a person will live their life. The study of nature vs. nurture, genetics vs. environment continues in many areas, but we know enough to say with certainty that genetic factors don't determine a personality with certainty.

It's worth noting that, although cloning is a new and exciting technique, it's not hugely different in its ethical consequences from various other technique that we already know about for influencing the course of evolution or the characteristics of an individual. Whatever the technique, we are wisely cautious about any possible application to humans for a number of reasons.

Foremost among them is this idea of imposing on a person some particular purpose or duty or obligation of their life even before they are born. This, taken to any extent at all, strips fundamental rights from those individuals who result from such a process, and would be tantamount to slavery or a step beyond. Of course, there have been societies that practiced slavery, including our own, and we can only be grateful that our present-day technical knowledge was not available at those times.

For these kinds of reasons, some people fear even the development of this kind of knowledge and want to see research stopped or severely restricted. This, I believe, is not a solution. The knowledge will continue to be found, and if not by us, then by somebody else.

No, our present century, now drawing to a close, proves that we have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge and there is no going back. The challenge is whether the growth of our ethical knowledge can keep up with the growth of our technical knowledge. Our century also shows us examples of what happens when our power gets ahead of our wisdom, so the outcome here isn't a foregone conclusion. We need to continue the study of both the technologies and their ramifications, and develop rules for their use, not from dogmatic and outdated concepts of the past, but from a depth of understanding that matches the depth of our science.

For this week, that's the view from the Outpost. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.

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