Cloning away our sorrows?

On this sunny hot early August day in Boston, two stories from the Internet grabbed my somewhat overheated 'mindshare.'

First, an engaging profile of North Carolina Senator John Edwards (D)at washingtonpost.com. The telegenic (a media code word for 'movie star looks') Edwards has been touted as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. I have always viewed Edwards as somewhat of a Ken doll -- all looks and no humanity. The article, however, banished that image forever from my mind with its insightful and revealing look at Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth.

The other story that pulled at me on Tuesday was the discussion of cloning humans that took place at the National Academy of Science in Washington. Dr. Panos Zavos, a retired professor and head of a Lexington, Kentucky-based private corporation that markets infertility products and technologies, told the conference that he and his team plan to impregnate about 200 women with eggs that have been implanted with cells from their mates. Zavos and his professional partner, Dr. Severino Antinori of Italy, say that cloning will allow infertile couples to have children, and lead to the cure of many diseases.

Zavos and Antinori, no doubt, want to help people. (And perhaps become a little famous -- or infmaous -- at the same time.) There are lots of important issues that surround cloning. One of the most important is the 'error factor.'

Making a mistake while attempting to clone an animal is one thing -- and not a good thing at that. But with a human? As Alan Colman, research director of PPL Therapeutics in Scotland, said in the meeting "The bottom line is practice makes perfect. But is it ethical to practice in humans? I think it isn't."

For me, there is an even more profound issue -- the uniqueness of every human being. And that is where the two stories mentioned above mesh together, even if unintentionally.

One of the most moving aspects of the story of John and Elizabeth Edwards, is how they have dealt with the death of their 16-year-old son, Wade, in a traffic accident in 1996. It's obvious that Edwards and his son were close, and that both parents still deeply feel the loss five years later.

I thought of the Edwards', and of all parents who have lost a child, when I read that one potential market for human cloning is just this group -- grieving parents who want to try to bring back a lost child. Not that the Edwards would ever do such a thing -- they have strong religious convictions that I believe would prevent such a decision -- but for many other people, the temptation might be overwhelming.

Most people, I believe, would realize that trying to bring back a lost child in this way is futile. Even if the procedure was perfectly safe, the cloned child would have the horrible burden of being a unique individual raised with a set of expectations for a deceased sibling -- raised to 'take their place.'

But we have this streak , it seems, of not accepting who and what we are, or what has happened to us. If we lose our hair, we want to grow it back (or replant it). If our breasts are too small, our waists too large, our nose too pointed, our teeth too dull -- we can fix all these things. Our culture seems to have accepted the notion that this will make us happier. So, some may think, why not try and fix the problem of not having children -- or of replacing the lost child -- with scientific methods that grow increasing morally complicated.

It may be that there are some forms of cloning that can be done -- this is the heart of the current debate over stem cell research. But we cannot allow science to speed past our ethics without an afterthought. The result could be far worse that any perceived injustice or problem the science is trying to cure.

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