February 17, 1998 in City

They’ve No Business Duping Mankind

Ellen Goodman Boston Globe
 

To be frank, I’ve had a little trouble taking the business of human clone making seriously. Consider the most celebrated would-be clone maker, Richard Seed. Would you take your infertility problems to someone named Dr. Seed?

When the Chicago physicist announced that he was going to begin cloning people, I thought the business motto alone went over the top: “Identical Twins - 30 Years Apart!”

The 69-year-old who confessed that he is “only a near-genius” predicted cheerily, “Clones are going to be fun. I can’t wait to make two or three of my own self.”

That prospect alone would have chilled any lingering support for human cloning. And that was before the Raelian Movement, a Swiss cult that believes life on Earth was created by extraterrestrials, offered seed money to Seed.

The whole thing has had the aura of high comedy, not cutting-edge science. But Seed planted a reminder in the fertile public imagination.

Soon after his announcement, Dolly the sheep was followed by George and Charlie the calf clones. We are told that pigs are in the offing. A general notion has grown that sooner or later, somewhere or other, somebody will try to reproduce another body.

Now, in rapid order, the White House called for a five-year ban on cloning people, the FDA warned anyone not to clone without its permission and two pieces of anti-cloning legislation were filed in the Senate.

How did we get so far afield so fast?

Human reproductive technology has been treated as if it were just another bastion of free enterprise. The business has been driven by infertility. In this world, the customer is always right. Supply must meet demand.

The desire of adults for children has led us, with the best of intentions, down some very dimly lit ethical alleys.

In the 1980s, when Baby Louise came out of the test tube, down the birth canal and into the public limelight, in vitro fertilization was a shock. Now it’s nearly routine.

Since then we’ve seen paid surrogate mothers, custody disputes over frozen embryos. We’ve also had people who want to harvest sperm from dead men and one set of grandparents who tried to use their dead daughter’s ovum in a post-mortem pregnancy.

At no time was there a public consensus or even discussion before the fact. The decisions were essentially left to fertility doctors and their customers.

The loose and largely unregulated nature of fertility treatment is partly due to arguments about reproductive freedom that spill over from the abortion debate. The advancing technology is also protected under the rubric of free scientific inquiry.

But the operating instructions of private clinics also have been, in the words of Chicago-Kent law school ethicist Lori Andrews, “Show me the money.”

After announcing his plans for human cloning, Seed said, “I have been enormously encouraged in just one day by calls I have received from infertile couples who are in tears. … They … tell me things like ‘Don’t let them stop you.”’ I have no idea if infertile adults would line up to be guinea-clone-pigs but, as Andrews says, “I think we are creating needs rather than meeting them.” There is no “need” for a clone. And no excuse.

The medical risks of failure are horrendous. In cloning sheep, the rate of success was one healthy Dolly for 277 attempts. For cows, it’s five or 10 out of a hundred. We have no idea how much greater the chances of miscarriage or deformities are for humans.

As for the ethical, legal, psychological and philosophical risks of success - the odds are even worse. The legal world is already asking whether a clone is a person or a copy of a person. Does the original ‘own’ the copy? What does it say about a parent who reproduces himself or herself? What does it mean to a child? That he or she is a commodity?

Andrews raises the Michael Jordan Factor. Imagine if Clone Jordan broke his kneecap at age 10. Would that end his reason for being? Imagine if Michael had a heart attack at 40. Would that make his clone uninsurable? That’s just the easy stuff.

When we talk about bans, someone in the scientific community inevitably warns us about stopping progress. But as the more reasoned of the two Senate bills - the Kennedy-Feinstein bill - suggests, it’s not that hard to keep medical research on track while forbidding the creation of a human clone.

Spare us Dr. Seed and any other little seedlings getting ready to cash in on clones. This is one idea that has to be nipped before the bud.

xxxx


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