President Clinton reflected a kind of societal nervous twitch reaction to the idea of human cloning when he banned federal funding and called for a moratorium on human cloning research pending a study by the National Bioethics Commission. A couple of bills to ban human cloning were introduced in the House.
Given the existing restrictions on human embryo research, all this may have been superfluous. But clearly the shudder of perplexity and apprehension generated by word of a cloned sheep and then a cloned monkey seemed to demand some reassurance, however symbolic, from the bully pulpit.
Our historical experience with managing what science creates has not been very good. What can be done tends to be done for reasons of national or private interest, often accompanied by an expression of awe.
A century and a half ago, "What hath God wrought?" signaled Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph. That opened the era of electrical communication, and now webs and nets in cyberspace race ahead, full of promise and problems almost beyond our grasp.
A century after Morse, in New Mexico, Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the explosion of the atomic bomb he had helped to create. He quoted from Hindu scripture, "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds."
But from the time that Einstein said it could be done, there was no doubt it would be done. And little doubt that, even without the wartime imperative, the hydrogen bomb would follow.
And now, feebly, we try to climb down from being the "shatterer of worlds." How long would you bet it will be before a human being is cloned? As early as 1971, Dr. James Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, wrote that we were moving toward "the clonal man." And he said this was too important a matter to be left to scientists.
Now scientist Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, says that human cloning may be justified in some very rare circumstances, such as untreatable infertility.
And while Mr. Clinton warns against the temptation to play God, our scientists are quite accustomed to playing God, and where they lead the market tends to follow.
Within days of the announcement of the cloned sheep in Scotland, The Wall Street Journal carried an article headlined, "Who Will Cash in on Breakthrough in Cloning?" I wait for the sequel, when some rogue laboratory in Mexico or Montana finds profit in human cloning.
What can be done will be done, and society will be left to cope with the consequences.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.