Even our clones will tell their own tales

September 25, 1998

The scientist is ready, the lawyer is expectant, but it is the storyteller, says Martha Nussbaum, to whom we should now listen as we consider one of the greatest ethical issues of our time ...

A classic French novel about a miller's wife who finds an abandoned baby and brings him up as her own son can help us understand the ethical dilemmas involved in cloning our nearest and dearest. So says Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, who wants to draw poetry, fiction and mythology into the discussion on human cloning (see extract below).

Until last year and the replication of Dolly the sheep, cloning was a practice confined to science fiction. Now it has become a real possibility. Ian Wilmut, the scientist who led the team that cloned Dolly, has already received phone calls from grieving relatives wondering whether he can clone their lost ones.

"Imagination has a role to play in public discussions about cloning. It can help us think about new possibilities," insists Nussbaum. "We have never seen cloning before, and it is the role of imagination to make more concrete these strange worlds."

Nussbaum has co-edited a book - with Cass Sunstein, also a professor of law at Chicago - all about cloning. It ranges widely, taking in contributions from lawyers, novelists and psychotherapists as well as from scientists. Nussbaum and Sunstein feel that scientists have dominated the stage long enough. "There are pressing philosophical, ethical and legal issues," says Nussbaum. "We aim to broaden the public debate."

Nussbaum, herself a mother, believes that, in time, good reasons will be advanced for human cloning. She advocates the licensing of the technique, preferring strict controls to an outright ban. Careful questioning of the "parent" will be required to establish their background and close medical supervision will be necessary. "I think that controls like those on surrogate motherhood would be appropriate," she says.

By visualising the possibility of human cloning, Nussbaum wants to take the terror from the technique. "Things that seem ridiculous at one time can later be right," she says. For instance, talk of human cloning invariably conjures up the possibility of cloning Hitler. Indeed, Richard Dawkins's essay in the book describes "phalanxes of identical little Hitlers goose-stepping to the same genetic drum". But Nussbaum points out that "the yuck factor is an unreliable response: history shows that it is dead wrong".

In the book, the fictional case of Kristina and Ronald Martin is created by Sunstein. Kristina is 38 and Ronald is 42; Ronald is infertile. Kristina seeks to carry Ronald's cloned child and is challenging the state laws that forbid the cloning of humans. It is a scenario that Nussbaum finds entirely plausible. "Laws (outlawing cloning) have already been passed but some say that they are unconstitutional," she says. She envisages challenges through the courts.

To prepare for that day, we need to examine people's motives for cloning. "What kind of motives will people have and how should we winnow out inappropriate ones?" she asks. Nussbaum herself examines this issue in a short story about a woman who raises her lover's clone only to discover that "Little C" is his own person.

Indeed, that day may be closer than even she thinks. Last week US physicist Richard Seed announced that he intended to start human cloning by creating an embryo from the nucleus of one of his cells and a donor egg. His wife, Gloria, would carry the baby.

Clones and Cloning, edited by Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein, is published by W W Norton, Pounds 18.95.

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