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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON SCIENCE ETHICS

Keep a Public Eye on Cloning

The process has advanced worldwide, and laws prohibiting it are increasingly impractical.

September 29, 1998|MICHAEL W. BERNS | Michael W. Berns is the Arnold and Mabel Beckman professor at UC Irvine and president and CEO of Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic in Irvine

Recently, I found myself thinking, what's the big deal about human cloning? Then I remembered that I was one of those who sounded the alarm when the idea that human beings might be cloned first seemed like a remote possibility.

Writing in 1975 for the Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook of Science and the Future, I stated: "The possible application of cloning to the human species . . . would have far-reaching and possibly devastating moral and sociological effects--in effect, creating a 'brave new world' beyond imagination. Birth might no longer be a family or personal matter."

Now these statements seem extreme to me. Two decades later, we have moved well beyond the promise of cloning research to its application in many fields relating to cancer, immunology and transplant medicine, just to name a few. The recent demonstration of cloning in mammals (sheep, mice, cows) is merely an extension of the technology that was developed in the early '60s to clone vertebrates such as frogs and toads.

Now there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Even if--as some lawmakers have proposed--the U.S. were to adopt laws controlling research into the cloning of humans and/or other mammals, this would not stop other countries from moving forward.

Putting a moratorium on certain aspects of scientific research would be dangerous and difficult. First, where do you draw the line? Is it OK to clone cold-blooded frogs but not warm-blooded mammals, such as sheep, cows and monkeys? The techniques to do both are very similar. Do we extend the moratorium down to the cell level and prevent research on cloning cells? But cloning cells is something we do every day in the lab as a way to study how cells grow and why normal cells become cancer cells.

And who should make the decisions about exactly what is cloned and how many copies of each clone is made? The government funds much of the research in the U.S., so turning off the money tap may work to some extent. But that still doesn't deal with the issue of where the line is drawn. And it certainly does not deal with the research funded and carried out by private companies, foundations and private donors that make millions of dollars in gifts each year to universities, where much of this research goes on. In fact, it was recently reported that an anonymous wealthy donor advertised through the Internet for proposals to clone the family pet dog. Apparently there was no shortage of applicants, and the winner was a highly reputable major university.

Finally, there is no way to regulate research on a worldwide basis. Let's face it. Cloning technology has been proved to work, and it is not technically that difficult. It stands to reason that any country, wealthy individual, company or consortium can set itself up to clone sheep, cows, monkeys, the family dog or eventually probably even humans, if they so choose.

Today, we have women acting as surrogates for other women; we have sperm that can be purchased over the Internet from a "mail order catalog"; we have embryos that have been frozen whose ownership are the subject of legal battles. In essence, we already have created a "brave new world" where some children contend with the fact that their parents may be genetic, surrogate, "mail-order" or some combination created by modern day wizardry.

Where does cloning fit into all of this? One might argue that society has already crossed the line. Moratoriums only drive people underground (or offshore), and even may attract less reputable people into the field.

Keeping the research out in the open will keep it where scientific peers, ethicists, religious leaders and an educated public can scrutinize it. This will allow us to keep focusing on the moral aspects of the technology and working to develop laws that define a legal and ethical standard that will be generally accepted and enforceable.

It is time to accept that cloning technology is with us and to stimulate more and better research that will lead to treatment of many serious diseases and health care problems.

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