Bioethicist John Harris has a question for those wrestling with the morality of human cloning - why not? Harriet Swain reports.
Many people will be extremely happy there is only one John Harris. Professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, he has cut through the debate which has raged over human cloning since the birth of Dolly the sheep-clone by asking simply: "Why not?" Arguments against human cloning, he says, are "so thin, or so implausible as to be absurd". He finds it deeply worrying that people involved in outlawing human cloning have been driven by their "gut reactions and prejudices". It is disturbing, says Harris, "because the hysterical individuals concerned are not, as yet, confined in institutions where they can do no harm".
All this, and more, will form part of an Amnesty lecture to be given next month. Harris's argument is that far from protecting human rights, a ban on human cloning - the production of an exact genetic replica of a human being - would violate them. In his lecture he will argue, "it may be we should be prepared to accept both some degree of offence and some social disadvantage as a price we should be willing to pay in order to protect freedom of choice in matters of procreation". Reproduction is such an important aspect of human life that it is a right in itself, he says. Limits on people's freedom to reproduce should only be imposed for very good reasons. So far, he believes, no one has produced any reason compelling enough to restrict human beings' right to clone themselves.
This is no snap judgement on his part. Now 52, Harris has specialised in bioethics for about 20 years. He took his first degree in law at the University of Kent, followed by a DPhil at Balliol College, Oxford, in political violence. It was the use of medical examples in his thesis that brought him into the field of medical ethics. He has since served for seven years - until last year - on the ethics committee of the British Medical Association, was a member of the government advisory committee on genetic testing and has been a consultant to the European Parliament and Commission, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations. His book,Wonderwoman and Superman, anticipated cloning as early as 1992.
While he has nothing against gut reactions - "I'm very fond of my own" - he does not feel they are a good guide to resolving life's most fundamental questions. He hates the idea that the time he and people like him put into thinking about ethical issues can be overridden by ill-considered public opinion. "What I'm worried about is panic gut reactions that might foreclose options," he says. "It is bad policy and bad government to ban things just because readers of The Sun don't like them."
So far Sun readers, and their counterparts in America and the rest of Europe, seem to have won out. Dolly's birth, reported last February, prompted US President Bill Clinton to demand an immediate investigation into the ethics of cloning and to announce a moratorium on public spending on human cloning. The World Health Organisation declared human cloning "ethically unacceptable and contrary to human integrity and morality". Unesco stated that human beings should not be cloned under any circumstances and maintained that the human genome "must be preserved as the common heritage of humanity". The European Parliament produced a resolution which said human cloning must continue to be banned. Only this month there was an outcry when US physicist Richard Seed announced his plan to set up the first human clone clinic in Chicago. Clinton immediately urged a ban on human cloning experiments for at least five years and the World Medical Association asked doctors to boycott such research. Even the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, which produced Dolly, advised against cloning people.
But, at the same time, there have come hints that Harris is not alone. Responding earlier this month to a report on cloning by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, the government said that it was "not opposed to the principle of cloning techniques where research is being carried out on serious inherited diseases". Sir Colin Campbell, chairman of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, which is to publish its report on human genetics next week, has said that the commission may support research into human cloning to tackle disease. Commission member John Polkinghorne said this week that the report would rule out cloning for infertile couples but discuss the possibility of allowing cloning research on human embryos up to 14 days' old. Campbell, however, believes it is essential to face questions about cloning's potential benefits and dangers before it is too late.
Quite, says Harris, who submitted a paper to Sir Colin's commission. He argues that notions about the lack of "security of genetic material" and about preserving the human genome as "the common heritage of humanity" are misplaced. When inserted with precision by scientists, is genetic material really less secure than "when spread around with the characteristic negligence of the human male?", he asks. Is the expensive and risky method of cloning really going to produce enough twins to affect the genetic variation of the human race, which, in any case, already produces twins once in every 0 pregnancies? There was no threat to the human genome a thousand years ago when the world population was about 1 per cent of what it is today.
Fears that human cloning could allow eugenic and racist selection are also ill thought-out, Harris argues. Legal methods of controlling fertility - prenatal screening, egg and sperm donation, abortion - present the same possibilities. "The fact that things could be abused doesn't mean they will be abused," he says. "It doesn't constitute a reason for preventing them, unless there is no way of preventing the abuse." It would be like trying to prevent sex because of the possibility of rape. "If someone just wanted to be cloned simply because they fancied rearing a child with the same genome as themselves I would think they were a bit bizarre," says Harris. "But then a lot of parental motives are bizarre."
In any case, Harris argues that anyone wanting an exact copy of themselves is bound to be disappointed. If a cell from the embalmed body of Lenin were taken and cloned, there would be no possibility of recreating Lenin. For that it would be necessary to recreate his environment, education, parents, upbringing and pre-revolutionary Russia itself. Even twins with the same genetic make-up, living at the same time, rarely look and act exactly the same.
What seems unfair to Harris, father of a nine-year-old son, is that infertile couples or single people may be denied the chance to bring into the world babies with their own genetic make-up, simply, as he sees it, because of the hysterical reaction of public bodies. Pressure from scientists is likely to make human cloning inevitable, he says, just as test-tube babies are now accepted despite the initial outcry. All he wants is for people to talk about cloning rationally. Personal instincts are no way to decide difficult life questions. His arguments stem from no desire to clone himself.
Hilary Putnam will deliver the firstof the 1998 Oxford Amnesty lectures onJanuary 28 at 6pm. John Harris's lectureis on February 12. All lectures, which are sponsored by The THES, are at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.