An Ethical Dilemma In Sheep's Clothing
A federal advisory panel tomorrow will recommend how much to regulate cloning.
BOSTON — Bob McKinnel's phone rang shortly after headlines proclaimed that the cloning of a sheep named Dolly had stunned the world.
"I was called by a person who just lost a young daughter," the University of Minnesota geneticist recalls. "Both parents were grieving. They asked if cloning could bring their daughter back."
While Mr. McKinnel, a longtime researcher in the field, opposes cloning human beings, the plaintive plea stirred the kind of moral questioning many scientists are going through as genetic engineering promises revolutionary new breakthroughs and dangers. "Do I," he says, pausing, "want to be the one to say to these people: 'No, you can't do this?' "
A federal ethics panel has been struggling with tensions like this for nearly four months. Tomorrow, the 18 scientists, legal scholars, and theologians who make up the National Bioethics Advisory Commission are expected to make something of a middle-of-the-road recommendation.
An early draft asks Congress to ban private clinics from implanting embryos that have been cloned from an adult's genetic material in women. Combined with an existing ban on the use of federal funds for research using human embryos, such a measure could help ensure that a dangerous and poorly understood reproductive method that yielded Dolly would not be used on humans.
Yet the panel is expected to allow scientists in privately funded clinics to use cloned embryos to study human development for disease-related research.
The group's measured recommendations will be debated around the world. Virtually every country is struggling with how to regulate a technology that promises new medical advances and ways to help infertile couples but raises profound questions about identity and even the purpose of having children. Moreover, the decisions are being made at a time when the science of cloning is at a rudimentary stage and popular perceptions about it often seemed shaped as much by Woody Allen as Nobel laureates.
"Cloning is not Xeroxing," says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, noting that nature's own clones, identical twins, can grow up with different personalities and appearances. Many people, he says, have a science-fiction notion of what cloning can and cannot accomplish.
Part of the complication, too, lies in the suddenness with which the latest breakthrough in genetic engineering burst upon the world and the ambiguity that still surrounds it. In February, researchers at the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced they had, for the first time, bred a sheep from an egg whose genetic material was replaced with that taken from an adult ewe.
If the results are duplicated, it would confirm that adult mammals can be cloned. As word of the experiment spread, scientists acknowledged that the process could be applied to humans - in theory.
"This was a real surprise," recalls James Childress, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and a member of the national bioethics panel. The weight of scientific evidence suggested that cloning an adult mammal wouldn't work, "so I'd never talked about it in any of my classes. I'd consigned it to the realm of science fiction."
DESPITE the uncertainties surrounding the science, states have moved quickly to regulate the technology. At least 13 states are considering bills to ban human cloning.
Some argue the regulations go too far. Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington-based trade group, points to a bill in Florida that would have banned cloning of human DNA. Mr. Feldbaum says the bill, since modified, would have brought biomedical research to a standstill and even halted work at the state crime lab.
Yet abortion critics and others argue that any form of research with embryos - including cloning - should be banned.
While acknowledging the need to weigh the ethical, moral, and religious implications of cloning entire human beings, the topic "does not need to be on the lie-awake-at-night list for any American," Dr. Caplan says. The science behind the Scottish experiment is so poorly understood, even by the researchers who conducted it, that Dolly could well be a fluke, he contends.
Of more immediate concern, he suggests, is whether society should allow the creation of human embryos purely for scientific research, not to help infertile couples.
"How embryos are created and for what purpose makes a difference," he says. "Special embryos made just for research purposes is no way to show value or respect for a potential person."
Yet even if it ultimately proves possible to clone a human being, "it's a side show," Caplan adds. "I've not heard one single good reason to clone a human being. The main event is genetic engineering: How much are we slowly going to modify our genetic structure. That's where the moral, spiritual, religious issues are."