On deciding who to clone

February 13, 1998

In the late 1970s scientists and engineers decided to restrict genetic engineering until there had been a debate about the prospective uses and abuses of the, then, new technology. We are in a similar position today with regard to the technology of cloning humans. Successful work in cloning of sheep, cows and monkeys has demonstrated the feasibility of cloning in animals. The reliability of the technique still requires considerable development before it can be assessed for humans. Only about 0.3 - 0.5 per cent of the fusions of an adult or foetal cell with an anucleate ovum give rise to healthy viable animals.

On the basis of the current technology, it would be foolhardy to contemplate the provision of a cloning service to individual humans, however selected. Nevertheless, while recognising the bans on human cloning research by the US Congress, Who, Unesco and the Council of Europe, it is yet prudent to project to a time, some ten to 20 years hence, when the reproducibility and reliability of the cloning technology as applied to non-human mammals has achieved efficiencies of 80 per cent or greater. Then the cloning of humans becomes an experiment that cannot be ignored.

It is well that we rehearse the ethical arguments without being exposed to the heat of the actualised situation. As John Harris wrote (THES, January 23), "Reproduction is such an important aspect of human life that it is a right in itself". Those opposed to human cloning on ethical grounds argue that cloning objectifies (commodifies) humans and is contrary to human integrity and the right to uniqueness. It is not possible to assert that every application of this new-found cloning tool is guaranteed to result in benefit. But to continue with its development, it is sufficient to claim that some applications will be beneficial and to discover the mechanisms by which the beneficial uses may be encouraged while the harmful uses are banned.

We can approach the issue of who is cloned by posing the question: what is the benefit? Gains may be realised at the level of the individual, their families and/or the wider society. We can identify some individuals whose only possible method of reproduction is that afforded by cloning. Others might wish to retain a family member who has died suddenly. Does the benefit to such individuals provide sufficient justification for the costs involved (sums of Pounds 15,000 to Pounds 50,000 may be envisaged)? Those who could engage in such an operation would have to be relatively well off. This raises a further ethical question about the fairness of a situation where only the relatively wealthy may obtain for themselves this "right to reproduce". A fairer approach might be to provide funds for cloning individuals chosen at random from suitable applicants. Whether or not "privatised" cloning should be allowed in parallel is a moot point but control could be effected by licensing practitioners. Only pragmatic experimentation can tell whether or not such procedures would produce lasting benefit.

Generating clones for social benefit provokes a different suite of questions. It would be difficult to dispute that human history has been punctuated by relatively few outstanding individuals whose contributions to humanity have resulted in exceptional benefits. A possible advantageous use of the human cloning tool, therefore, could be through the cloning of those individuals who have already demonstrated a propensity to make extraordinary contributions to human well-being. If it is collectively decided to proceed in this way, who might such people be? It would be facile to point to Nobel laureates, recipients of Her Majesty's honours, winners of internationally contested prizes, sporting events or media awards. But it should not be beyond our collective wit to devise an acceptable selection method. One scenario might require obtaining nominations for candidates from as wide a constituency as practicable. Following the derivation of a shortlist by canvassing opinion a random choice might be used.

These cloned individuals should be reared in environments that would be the most conducive to the emergence of the beneficial characteristics of the originator. However, not all the clones of an exceptionally productive individual will turn out to be equivalently productive; rather the cloning procedure increases the probability that, under appropriate rearing, some of the so generated cloned individuals could also become of outstanding benefit to humanity.

It would be crucial to consider the ethical treatment of these clones. How might they be informed of their origins, their siblings and their selection? Should opportunities be provided for them to choose whether they want to subject themselves to specialised rearing procedures? How might we prevent the emergence of an elite based on the cloned people; or if such a group did form naturally, how might it justify itself?

The cloning genie has already escaped. Societies will regulate this activity differently. The examination of alternative approaches will better enable us to see the way ahead. Were we to succeed then we could expect an increase in the rate of our evolutionary development and thus continue a four billion- year-old tradition.

Ray Spier is professor of science and engineering ethics at the University of Surrey. This article is based on a paper he is giving this week to the Amercian Association for the Advancement of Science.

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