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We Can Tackle Cloning Responsibly

June 02, 2002|JUDITH F. DAAR | Judith F. Daar is a professor of law at Whittier Law School.

President Bush recently reinvigorated the debate about human cloning, warning in a Rose Garden speech that "allowing cloning would be taking a significant step toward a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts, and children are engineered to custom specifications."

Pundits surmise that these fiery words were aimed at the 20 or so senators who remain undecided on whether all forms of cloning should be banned, or whether federal law should prohibit reproductive cloning but permit therapeutic cloning, a technique that may lead to cures for many diseases.

The president's words portend a grim future if cloning is unleashed, one in which concepts of human dignity, individuality and autonomy are memories of a bygone era. But will a cloning-filled future be so bleak? In some ways, we have seen that future, and it is remarkably unchanged in its respect for human values.

The notion that a person could be cloned for spare body parts assumes that our current laws prohibiting homicide would be disregarded. Today's organ transplantation technology is so sophisticated that it enables living donors to surrender their kidneys and liver lobes to others.

Yet we are not witness to forced extraction of organs, but rather enjoy a system in which the donor's informed consent is paramount in any transplant procedure. Why would a person whose genome matches that of another be treated differently than any other compatible donor?

The president speaks of engineering children to meet specifications. In fact, we have the technology to shape the genetic well-being of our children and those breakthroughs have been embraced. Couples can create embryos in a test tube and learn whether any of their future children carry a genetic mutation.

Using preimplantation genetic diagnosis, parents can ensure the health of their offspring by implanting embryos that are unaffected by genetic traits that have plagued their ancestors. Experience has revealed that these "engineered children" are welcomed and nurtured for all the same joys and challenges that children of ordinary conception pose.

The prospect of human cloning is repugnant to most Americans perhaps because it conjures up images of science gone awry, crossing over some Maginot line that will doom the human species. More probably, cloning will be, like all new technologies, a small step along the spectrum of scientific inquiry.

Today's fear of cloning has mushroomed into nearly universal calls for legislative bans. But is a ban on human cloning practical? I think not.

Human cloning is a genie-out-of-the-bottle phenomenon. We have heard the claims of Italian fertility specialist Severino Antinori that a cloned pregnancy is in the works, a full eight weeks along. Massachusetts biotechnology giant Advance Cell Technology announced in November that it had succeeded in creating human embryos using cloning, a feat that has been ongoing in China for two years.

Researchers in the United States have cloned seven species of animals, claiming great strides in improving safety and efficacy with each new birth. The crossover to human cloning is close and it is inevitable.

If we fear a cloning future, then let us meet it with reasoned readiness. A ban is futile, causing both rogue and respected scientists to flee to cloning-friendly jurisdictions. Instead, we can be a leader in promoting the safest possible research environment.

Regulations that impose scrutiny of human trials, laws that protect against discrimination of cloned individuals, and policies that show equal respect to all individuals regardless of their genetic makeup are far more sensible than trying to stop the coming flood by putting our finger in the dike.

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