Unveiled in a remote Scottish laboratory last February, Dolly the cloned lamb raised the question: "Are humans next?" The National Bioethics Advisory Commission, to which President Clinton turned for advice, issued a lengthy report earlier this month saying, in essence, "Not for a while at least." Concluding that cloning presents hazards to humans, the commission recommends a five-year ban.
Though the commission urges caution, cloning efforts won't end. Major areas of research and development - techniques that produce cloned human embryos, genetic engineering using the cloned human embryos, and unrestricted animal cloning - are untouched by the commission's recommendations.
The commission's ban allows all this and more. Although a law enacted by Congress currently prohibits the use of federal funds for research on human embryos, such work is unrestricted in the private sector. Only implanting a cloned embryo into a woman's uterus for gestation is forbidden. But in the future, if further research indicates cloning is safe, the country will have to face head-on the ethical problems posed by human cloning.
Opponents of cloning argue that it entails a transformation of reproduction into manufacture, and of children into products of deliberate design. Proponents say this is a question of reproductive choice and of a right to privacy - that cloning harms no one while it benefits quite a few. Special cases are pleaded, such as cloning a child for bone marrow prescribed for an ailing child, or creating a child from the cells of a father diagnosed as fatally ill.
The commission's report argues for striking "a balance between the values society wishes to reflect and issues of privacy and the freedom of individual choice." But doesn't "balancing" these positions require saying yes to at least some cases? And if society says yes to some, how does it say no to others? This is where the slope may become too slippery to stop to think where human cloning will ultimately lead.
Furthermore, how is human cloning likely to develop in a society where scientific and medical practices are permeated by commerce? The commission is silent on this issue. Yet fertility clinics are lucrative for-profit enterprises (and several recent cases have shown them to be radically underregulated). A majority of practitioners in biogenetic fields have ties to the biotechnology industry. The Roslin Institute, which produced Dolly, already has filed patent applications that cover not only the techniques that produced her but also the techniques that would produce humans. And the Clonaid company is advertising cloning at $200,000 a shot.
These last two developments seem bizarre, but they give a whiff of the atmosphere likely to surround uninhibited human cloning. Aren't children produced this way likely to be "commodified," becoming products that embody commercial transactions? Interestingly, the commission chose to erase references to "commodification" from its final draft. Evidently someone thought that was going too far.
Further down this road, cloning might be combined with genetic engineering, raising the prospect of creating children not just in one's own image (genetically speaking) but in one's preferred image. Law professor John Robertson argued before the commission earlier this year that everyone has the right "to make sure a child is healthy and has good chances in life." What better way to pursue such goals than by selecting that child's genotype or enhancing it with genes for an extra boost of growth hormone?
These are weighty questions, and the commission, with good reason, hasn't rushed to give quick answers. But, now that the report is out, Congress should encourage broad public discussion of the issues the report raises - and of the commodification issue it skirts. Congress also should give some thought to broadening the proposed ban to encompass relevant research on human embryos. Given the intense interest in pursuing research in this area, grasping that nettle will sting. But otherwise, the commission's recommendation may look like the ban that gave the go-ahead.
* Susan Wright, a historian of science at the University of Michigan, is author of "Molecular Politics: Developing American and British Regulatory Policy for Genetic Engineering" (University of Chicago Press, 1994) and co-author and editor of "Preventing a Biological Arms Race" (MIT Press, 1997).