February 19, 2020
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Double Trouble

A physicist's decision to clone humans raises a moral outcry

Double Trouble
The creation of Dolly the sheep, the first ever xerox of an adult animal, has opened the proverbial Pandora's box. Ever since its existence became public last February, scientists, politicians, theologians, lawyers, doctors and laypersons alike have been debating the advisability of cloning humans. And now the recent decision by Richard Seed, an aptly named Chicago physicist, to do just that has fanned the flames of controversy further, raising age-old practical and ethical conundrums of tampering with nature that formed the subject matter of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Following Seed's declaration, US president Bill Clinton denounced the idea and urged Congress to slap a five-year moratorium on human cloning. And last week, 19 European nations signed an agreement to prohibit cloning. Now even the Indian Council of Medical Research has advised banning human cloning in India under its ethical guidelines on biomedical research.

Though the US banned all federal research on the human embryo in 1994, private institutions are still free to do so. Seed, who has little money and no institutional backing, is undeterred by the criticism. "I propose to produce 500 baby clones a year," he told an American newspaper. "And if they ban it here (in the US), I will go to Mexico and do it there."

But what exactly is cloning and what does it mean for us? Why are people so vehemently opposed to cloning? Is cloning 'unnatural'? Is an identical twin the same as a clone? Would the clone be an exact psychological and physical copy of the original? Could we genetically engineer a designer clone with desires, urges, emotions and thoughts of our choice? Could some madman clone Hitler? Could we make brain-dead clones so that we could use them as slaves and guinea pigs or use their body parts with fewer moral qualms? Could we clone just the body parts?

But let's first talk about Dolly because she started it all. The origins of Dolly are still incredible. No one thought that it would be possible to take a cell from an adult mammal and produce a genetically identical copy. But that is how Dolly was created. She began life as a single cell taken from the udder of her mother. The cell's nucleus was removed, transferred into an egg from which the DNA had been removed, cultured and then implanted as an embryo into the womb of a surrogate sheep. Five months later, Dolly was born and is now a healthy ewe, a clone of her mother—and without a biological father.

Dolly is very different from earlier sheep clones produced from cells taken from embryos. There is no indication at such an early stage about the final destiny of these cells—for instance, whether they will end up in the brain or in the muscles. These undifferentiated cells can create all the different tissues of an adult organism as they divide. That cannot be said about adult cells—once an udder cell, always an udder cell.

 But that's precisely what Ian Wilmut and his colleagues at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh proved wrong by tricking an udder cell to behave as if it were an embryo cell. But it is not clear whether clones could be made with any adult cells. "Brain and muscle cells are probably so specialised that you can't reset their clocks," says Wilmut.Another question is whether cells from a very old donor would work. Some molecular changes that build up during ageing—such as random damage to DNA—are likely to prove impossible for an egg to reverse.

These uncertainties haven't deterred people from fantasising about cloning. You could clone yourself and do all those things that you regretted not doing or bring yourself up the way you think you should have been brought up; if you are rich and powerful, you could found dynasties with your clones; those with Faustian anxieties could create a brain-dead doppelganger from which they could take perfect transplant organs as theirs wear out; you could resurrect your beloved who is no more by recreating him or her from cells taken before death; you could clone a famous personality and bring him up as your kid; you could even bring your favourite heroes back from the dead. Imagine cloning Kishore Kumar or Madhubala, assuming someone, somewhere has a bit of their tissue to clone from.

But, of course, anyone who tried to clone, say, Madhubala would be deeply disappointed. This is where fiction parts ways with reality. It might be possible to create a ravishing Madhubala but if you cannot bring her up the way she was brought up, she, despite her looks, may not have the oomph to fire your passion. Indeed, the clone would not even be a true twin because she would not have shared the same uterine environment. Besides, the original DNA may have undergone changes that may make the copy look different.

A human clone therefore would not be a "carbon copy", an automaton of the sort so familiar in sci-fi works. It would be more like producing a delayed identical twin. And just as identical twins are distinct individuals, biologically, psychologically, morally and legally, though not genetically, a clone is a separate person. To think otherwise is to espouse a belief in genetic determinism, the view that genes dictate everything about us, with environment or nurture being a supernumerary.

Furthermore, cloning will probably always be riskier—that is, less likely to result in a live birth than happens in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and embryo transfer. (It took more than 276 attempts before the researchers were able to obtain a successful sheep clone. While cloning methods may improve, one shouldn't forget that even standard IVF techniques typically have a success rate of less than 20 per cent.)

Having said that, one cannot deny science's ability to overcome all odds. Assuming cloning becomes a reality, might not people have sympathy for the woman who lost a baby? Or for the terminally ill in need of organs? Or as a short cut for those who cannot have a baby by any other means? To many this would be morally outrageous. How can you treat a clone like a machine? Wouldn't it have human rights? These are fears which policymakers will have to consider before they allow cloning.

Many however believe a ban will not work. It would only push it underground where sooner or later somebody will accomplish it. Besides, banning human embryo research may hinder our understanding of life, disease and death.

Finally, the popularity of IVF shows how a new technology wins public endorsement when it concerns the right to have a child.It won't be easy to dismiss the possibilities offered by human cloning. At the same time, however, it would be naive to assume that it will never be used or misused.

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