Distraught because he believes he will never produce offspring, a sterile man listens to a doctor explaining how he can, indeed, father a biological son.
The boy would be the image of his old man, the doctor says. In fact, the son would be a genetic carbon copy of his father - a clone.
With all its ethical difficulties, that scenario is just one of many that leapt from fantasy to possibility with the cloning of a Scottish lamb.
In the past, reports of cloning experiments could be tempered by assurances that they have no applications to human beings. Not so with the experiment reported in an upcoming issue of the science journal Nature.
Cloning a mammal from mature body tissue is a quantum leap toward what many have pondered and some have feared - cloning people.
“This is as close to a Xerox machine as we are going to get in reproductive technology,” said Glenn McGee, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania.
For years, ethicists have mulled over the moral values of cloning. Why would someone want to do it? Who would be hurt? Should it be legal?
Now their academic ruminations have new importance.
In 1994, the National Advisory Board on Ethics in Reproduction issued a report on the ethics of cloning.
“NABER members find the scenario of giving birth to one’s identical twin (or giving birth to one’s husband’s identical twin) bizarre,” the report said. “They maintain that to create a child with one’s exact genetic constitution is narcissistic and ethically impoverished.”
But is every case so cut and dried?
The advisory board’s paper raised this scenario: What if a couple want to have a child, but one partner will pass on a debilitating genetic condition and neither considers it acceptable to use donor eggs or sperm?
The paper concluded that these kind of situations would be so rare that they do “not justify a blanket acceptance of this practice.”
Many of the ethical issues raised by cloning are in fact already being confronted by people concerned about the existing potential for genetic engineering in human reproduction. Soon, some predict, parents will be able to choose many of their baby’s traits - short to tall, cautious to risk-taking.
“We are going from a period of time where people had babies to where people make babies,” said McGee, author of the new book “The Perfect Baby.”
The issues have resisted sorting into piles of right and wrong.
“People have already had children because they had one child who needed a bone marrow transplant and needed a donor,” he said. “This would just be a case where, when you were going to do that, you would be sure to have a match.”
Just proving that human cloning is possible is almost unthinkable because the very first experiments would be repugnant.
“To even justify doing the experiment, you would have to say, ‘What will we do if we produce a malformed baby?”’ said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “What is the ethical purpose of even trying?”
Many of the more frightening scenarios that the Scottish experiment might inspire still belong to science fiction, however.
The sheep cells used in the cloning were robust, living cells, not dead ones.
There is no indication that, say, Abraham Lincoln’s dried blood and skull fragments (on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.) could be used to create a new Abraham Lincoln.
Besides, people are much more than their genes.
“If I try to create Abraham Lincoln without having him born in 1809 and having him be the president during the Civil War, he would not turn out to be Abraham Lincoln,” said Caplan.
The experiments also do not imply that extinct species, like the longgone Tyrannosaurus rex, could be recreated, as in “Jurassic Park.”