An international team of infertility doctors announces that it will clone a human being within 18 to 24 months. A religious sect that claims UFO connections insists it will shortly do the same, and has lists of donors and surrogate mothers already lined up. A high-tech magazine trumpets the message that techniques have progressed so rapidly that scientists agree it is either just about to happen or has already taken place.
These events of recent weeks promote the impression that the human-cloning express has left the station and nothing can be done to stop it. But while scientists agree the techniques are widely reported and accessible, many have joined the public hue and cry - and the renewed efforts to institute bans against it.
The Italian medical association threatened Severino Antinori, the doctor leading the cloning consortium, with the loss of his right to practice medicine. Israel brushed off a bid by an Israeli member of the team to locate the lab there. And a US congressional committee called the various players to a hearing last week as the first step in passing a legislative ban, with backing from the White House.
The provocative announcement in Rome brought to the fore the same deep global concerns that greeted the debut of Dolly, the sheep, in 1997 - the awareness that emerging biotechnologies represent unprecedented powers of control over human beings and the natural world. Far from calming the unease, rapid successes in the cloning of other types of animals have more recently brought mounting evidence of severe abnormalities.
"I don't think there is a single normal clone in existence," said Rudolph Jaenisch, professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at last week's hearing.
And the broad public debate that many scientists acknowledge needs to take place has yet to occur - a debate not only about cloning to create children, but also about the implications of its use in research in conjunction with other powerful technologies.
"A society that leaves such fundamental issues as human cloning or transgenic hybridization to experts is already a technocracy, not a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word," writes columnist Scott Eastham, in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Are we on the fast track of the technological imperative, or will it be possible to draw some lines on ethical grounds?
Broadening the discussion
Some researchers and biotech industry members see the necessity for broad involvement in the debate in order to build public confidence. They want, they say, to avert the unhappy experience of the nuclear power industry.
Some, however, are critical of what they view as uninformed participation and of naysayers, and have criticized the National Bioethics Advisory Commission for including religious perspectives in its hearings.
The Council of Secular Humanism recently posted a "declaration in defense of cloning" on the Web - signed by several Nobel laureates - which questions whether religious thinkers are qualified to contribute. "The potential benefits of cloning may be so immense that it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning," it says.
There are also scientists, however, who recognize that religion can speak to the anxieties of the general population and to aspects of questions raised by biotechnology about what it means to be human, which science itself doesn't readily address.
Religious ethicists have been deeply engaged in biotech issues for several years, but now church groups are getting involved. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, held a three-day consultation in October on human cloning for reproductive and therapeutic purposes, and produced a set of papers for discussion within the denomination.
The tension between various worldviews is readily apparent in these divergent expectations:
Lee Silver, a biologist at Princeton University, advocates not only human cloning but genetic engineering designed to enhance specific capacities of future generations; in "Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World," he envisions a direct human role in evolution through creation of a superspecies.
Religious ethicists, such as Ronald Cole-Turner at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, seek to define a relationship between "what we are doing and what God is doing" - a way to relate spiritual values and technology so that the powers are used for the greatest societal good. "Beyond Cloning: Religion and the Remaking of Humanity," a new book edited by Dr. Cole-Turner, explores the ethical dilemmas involved.
Innumerable issues fuel the debate, from safeguards for human experimentation to which voices need to be taken into account, to the proper priorities for use of health resources, to whether biotechnology is skewing our understanding of ourselves and the sources of our well-being.
The hype about the imminence of human cloning suggests that many see it as inevitable and are eager to be in the front ranks. The sobering data on abnormalities should halt them in their tracks, scientists say. Many feel that safety may never be assured.
Dr. Jaenisch says the abnormalities are due to random errors resulting from the speed at which reprogramming of genes takes place in the cloning process, and no way exists to screen for 30,000 genes. "It is absolutely unacceptable and irresponsible to consider cloning now," he said in an interview.
Cloning advocates say plenty of people are seeking their services and are willing to pay handsomely, from parents wanting to clone a dead child to couples confronting infertility. The case is most frequently made on the basis of individual liberty - on libertarian grounds that no one has the right to interfere with parents' reproductive rights. For 50 percent of infertile couples, they say, it represents the only way to have biological children.
Others counter that they are thinking only of their own rights, and not those of the child, who cannot give "informed consent" and must face the psychological and social implications.
"It is intolerable to do that in the name of choice or liberty, because you are depriving that child of choice and liberty," says George Annas, head of the health law department at Boston University. Cloning is not reproduction but replication, he adds. "You don't get a biological child, but a brother or sister."
Religious ethicists also emphasize the radical shift in family structure and social relationships that cloning would entail. They insist individualistic decisions should not be the basis for acts with such profound societal and global impact.
Many see a slippery slope leading to efforts to enhance specific characteristics of children and even to the reemergence of eugenics.
Cloning for research
The rationale for the new biotechnologies has been to find remedies for some of the estimated 4,000 thousand diseases believed to be linked to genetic problems. Those in the biotech field feel they are on the cusp of a revolution that will transform medicine.
"Therapeutic cloning" is one of the tools in their arsenal, and it is almost as controversial as reproductive cloning because of the involvement of human embryos. Some even take issue with the terminology. "Therapy implies you already have a treatment that can do someone some good, but we don't," says Dr. Annas. "We are in the early stages."
Still, several countries are under pressure from the industry to ease their restrictions on the cloning of embryos for research. Britain in January become the first nation to do so, within strict limits. Canada rejected cloning last week in a proposed set of research guidelines, but allowed research on embryos. Private researchers in the US are totally unrestricted, but at the moment, federal funds may not be used for research in which a human embryo is destroyed.
In human stem cell research, human embryos are used to harvest stem cells, which can develop into any kind of cell in the human body. They thus hold the promise of generating tissue and whole organs to replace those that are damaged, and could treat a range of conditions. Some even see this as the "road to immortality." Spare embryos from infertility clinics are currently being used in such research.
The moral status of the human embryo is a fundamental issue. Roman Catholics oppose any research involving destruction of the human embryo. Jews do not consider the embryo a person unless it is implanted in the womb, says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Others grapple with various levels of "moral respect" due the embryo. In a recent report of The Hastings Center, an ethics think tank in Garrison, N. Y., Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilander offers a thought-provoking analogy to "just war" theory to argue for a complete ban. Others suggest ways respect can be shown even when destroying the embryo.
Mark Hanson, who teaches medical ethics at the University of Montana, in Missoula, cautions against rushing to human cloning to create embryos. Given the moral concerns, "there are alternative ways to derive stem cells that should be explored first," he says, "even though they may be more limited in application." Further animal research and use of stem cells taken from adults would bring advances, he says.
Janeisch, on the other hand, says Britain's action is exemplary. It's not clear that adult stem cells will be as useful, he argues, and delay would be unfortunate.
Many worry cloning to create embryos will intensify pressures to implant them, making reproductive cloning more likely.
Cynthia Cohen, of the Episcopal Church's Kennedy Institute of Ethics, participated in the Lutheran consultation, where she raised the issue of increased pressures on women to produce eggs for the cloning process. The processes carry considerable risks to women, she says, without any financial or other benefits to them, while investors and researchers could make huge profits.
Embryonic stem cells can also be genetically manipulated, and could be used to alter a human being in a way that all subsequent generations would carry the genetic change. This is called germ-line modification.
Such modifications, which theoretically could eliminate the inheritance of some diseases, "raise profound ethical, theological, and policy issues that need to be thoroughly discussed," says Audrey Chapman, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in an article in "Beyond Cloning."
Dr. Chapman co-authored a study on the ethical issues for AAAS, and highlights many danger areas, such as treatment of children as artifacts, reinforcing racial and ethnic discrimination, and adding "designed" inherited advantages to those of nurture and education. The AAAS study proposed stringent criteria, and "recommended that reform of the healthcare system to make access to genetic services available on a more equitable basis was an ethical prerequisite to going forward with germ-line therapies."
Justice issues rank high in the consideration of religious ethicists. Ensuring access to insurance and basic healthcare should come before spending billions on technologies only the wealthy can afford, Dr. Hanson says.
Of fundamental concern to many is the way the myth of genetic determinism and the hype surrounding the new technologies reshape our understanding of ourselves and of where redemption lies.
"Do they fuel in us the mistaken notion that all of our problems have technological solutions?" Dr. Cole-Turner asks. "There is deep unease that we are losing the capacity to address problems at the level of moral evil, and to face that [need for change] in ourselves."
Some people overestimate and some underestimate what these technologies can do, he adds. What powers to transform identity do they entail? What would it be like to be partly designed people? "A big fear is that we will be suckered into some of these," he says. "We need a correct, sober assessment of long-term potentials, and then develop the capacities to draw some lines."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor