Even if human cloning someday proves safe and easy - and that's still uncertain - living with it may not be.
What was once a far-fetched idea now seems closer. But the profound questions about cloning are best asked by taking them to one far-fetched result.
Imagine a world in which most or all people are genetic replicas of present or past humans. In such a hypothetical society, people would be mere copies of "real" humans, a futuristic version of the biblical tale of creating Eve out of Adam's rib.
It's important to consider such extremes because a cloned human being challenges the very meaning of being human. (See story, page 15.)
Before a few scientists venture down this risky path, everyone needs to ask questions about this new technology. Finding answers should not be left only to professional ethicists, religious leaders, government officials, or even pundits.
Technology and science of the past few centuries have brought freedom for humanity, but also dangers. Along with that, however, individuals have gained the capacity - through democracy and universal education - to participate more fully in debates and decisions over which technologies to control. That has helped prevent Luddite-like rejection of all inventions.
One lesson of past encounters with potentially dangerous technologies (such as nuclear power) is that important decisions should not just be left to "experts," who are often not always expert at asking all the right questions.
Experts have, for instance, been unable to curb a medical technique now popular in some countries that allows couples to choose the sex of their child. That practice already has altered the male-female ratio in those societies. Are these individual choices over reproduction collectively wise?
One pressing question about cloning is whether it puts a whole lot of unwarranted faith in the idea that genes determine the essence of individuality.
To create a child that looks exactly like someone or to manipulate genes to create a child with superior qualities just defies how humans have defined progress.
Humans have risen above their material existence not by gene manipulation but by higher qualities of thinking. Indeed, individuals generally make progress by relying on those things that are difficult to explain as being gene-driven: - education, altruism, spirituality, and other higher ideals. Such ideals need replicating more than DNA does.
Cloning raises so many questions that are as yet too short on thoughtful answers. That's why everyone should watch this fast-moving train and decide for themselves whether it's time to pull the brakes - or proceed with extreme caution.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor