Intimations of immortality

January 30, 1998

The "spontaneous reaction" to new developments in cloning technology described by Hilary Putnam in his Amnesty lecture (page 18) this week says much about human hopes and fears. The possibility of cloning raises questions about many aspects of human life until now taken for granted: that we are born of the sexual union of our parents; that even if we do not know who they were, their inheritance is built into us; that we must all die. Ideas of immortality have been the stuff of religion or science fiction, not everyday life.

The possibility of human cloning subverts these certainties, encouraging philosophical speculation about who we are and where a cloned individual might fit into traditional structures. Who is your heir, your natural child or your clone? Whose name goes on your birth certificate? In what sense is a "twin" born 30 years later identical? What moral code will help us negotiate a world in which such things are possible?

The emerging technology for cloning advanced mammals is arriving with little notice. As with so many scientific breakthroughs it has come upon us sideways, via methods developed to enhance drug production (as with Dolly) or agricultural output. The new techniques promise developments, some set out in the Human Genetics Advisory Committee's consultation paper, which most people would welcome - the possibility of improved skin grafts or control of cancers - but they also raise fearful spectres of misuse in the hands of the greedy, vain or unscrupulous.

The scientists responsible for Dolly insist that the use of their methods with humans is not acceptable. Moves to ban such work, as the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority has done here, and as the European Union heads of government and President Clinton hope to do, are widely supported, though powerful players such as the German government insist that the adoption of such rules in Europe would simply send the work elsewhere. This is a prime example of an area where international agencies should rapidly become involved to ensure that such bans operate worldwide and that the likes of Richard Seed of Chicago cannot simply move his money-making schemes to a more complacent jurisdiction.

But such bans cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Technologies have been successfully banned in the past: the Chinese did it with gunpowder and navigation. But the world is very different now. Simply trying to deny this knowledge is unrealistic and will fail. The ideas generated are not going to be self-limiting.

While it is pointless to dish out blame for lack of foresight, it is important now to enlist the scientific community in helping to control what happens next. The 1973 moratorium imposed on work in trans-species genetic manipulation, which led two years later to the Asilomar conference at which guidelines for such work were agreed by the US research community, may provide an example. It did not stop the work for long, as today's evidence shows, and only got going after public outcry, in the face of opposition from scientists who objected to any infringement of their freedom of action. But it did give a powerful boost to debate about how such technologies could and should be regulated, and led to conditions for their responsible use which are still in place.

As Putnam says, a space is needed now to review our moral and social assumptions, and to sort how we are to handle not just cloning technology but the whole range of powerful new genetic technologies. The debate launched by the HGAC and developed by Putnam is both welcome and timely.

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