To clone or not to clone?

As two scientists threaten to begin human cloning "within weeks," scientists and ethicists say the two are acting irresponsibly.

Published August 8, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

A pair of scientists reignited the debate over human cloning this week when they announced plans to begin cloning humans within a matter of weeks. Panayiotis Zavos, who runs a Kentucky fertility clinic, and Dr. Severino Antinori, of Rome, said they will use the same techniques used to create the cloned sheep Dolly for a set of screened couples who cannot conceive children by standard means.

Antinori and Zavos have touched off a bioethical and political firestorm as human cloning moves from the ethereal and theoretical realms into the tangible. Even scientists who support cloning have decried their move as irresponsible, arguing that the science of cloning has not been tested long enough to begin human experimentation. Last week, in an emotional and deeply divisive debate, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban all forms of human cloning for any purpose. Meanwhile, on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush is still mulling over whether to allow use of government funds for embryonic stem cell research.

With cloning dominating the global headlines, Salon asked a group of scientists and academics to weigh in on the latest controversies.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

We should have a ban on reproductive cloning. There's no entitlement to the ability to reproduce, and these scientists speak about it as if it were a fundamental right. No one has the right to interfere with reproduction, but if an individual wants to reproduce, it's not as if the government is obligated to provide them with a mate.

People who advocate human cloning are talking about taking risks that would never be acceptable in any other type of research. I think it's only reasonable to ask that a scientist show that they've perfected the work in animals before moving on to humans. You want to make sure that you're dealing with a high level of safety because you're dealing with an individual that can't consent: the clone. There's no evidence yet that this is safe.

It will be interesting to see what the Senate does now.

Adil Shamoo, Ph.D., is a bioethicist at the University of Maryland.

I think human cloning at this stage is still experimental, and it should be strictly regulated. But it should not be used as a treatment for reproduction, because it's not.

There's something repulsive about it. The procreation process was once sacred. It had a lot of human value associated with it. Cloning casts doubt on all these processes that we have gotten used to over thousands of years. But in the long run society needs to learn to adapt to it or reject it. And I think that society will accept it, unfortunately.

A cloning moratorium would give society a breather, a chance to have several more years of discussion, so no single group -- whether biologists or politicians -- makes the decision alone.

Lori Andrews is a professor of reproductive law at the Chicago-Kent College of Law and author of "Future Perfect," a book about the ethics of reproductive technology.

In the animal world, only about 5 percent of the pregnancies take. About a third of those pregnancies result in live births, and many of those offspring die prematurely or suffer from disabilities. Clearly if we had an infection that killed or crippled that percentage of babies, we would declare it a public health emergency. We wouldn't set up a clinic to do it.

Often the moral discussion gets lost in whether we can do it safely. Even if this becomes feasible, the question should be whether some technology would transform human reproduction into something closer to industrial production, and whether it would ultimately demean mankind.

If anything, this meeting at the National Academy of Sciences will push along a bill to forbid human cloning that has passed the House and is now in the Senate. Many nations in Europe have already outlawed it, and the U.S. is rather a rogue nation in still allowing it. Politicians here who don't understand the issue better get up to speed quickly. We have a thriving biotech industry, and it's important to encourage public debate on this.

Ronald Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason Magazine.

Well, my reaction is the same as it has always been: There's nothing philosophically wrong with using cloning to help couples who are having problems conceiving children, but it's much too early to do that. The risks are far too great, and it's far too early to think about doing this with humans. You make sure it works in animals perfectly first. Until you have that done, experimenting on humans should not go forward.

I don't know what is motivating Antinori and Zavos to do this now. I think they're fringe characters. The sad thing is they're likely to set back the use of reproductive cloning by a decade. I hope that someone will be able to stop them from trying to do this. They're fooling some desperate people who are in deep need for some reason or other, and it's terrible for these two to be taking advantage of these couples. By most accounts Antinori has the requisite skills for trying to do this idiot thing, but he should not. Maybe he's just an old man trying to make what he thinks is history.

This has been in the news lately because there's a full-court press from members of the neo-conservative right and neo-Luddite left to get all forms of cloning banned. It's not a safety issue for them, it's a philosophical issue. They're opposed to anything that will make it possible to use this technology to basically improve or cure genetic diseases in embryos. Next step after that would be to improve a child's immune system, or to improve their intelligence level or whatever, and they don't want to go down that path. They think this is where we should draw the line to stop the eugenic future.

Also, a company called Advance Cell Technology a couple of weeks ago announced they were collecting eggs for the purpose of beginning experiments leaning toward therapeutic cloning. Antinori and Zavos are a sideshow -- if they're the sorts of people who are driving policy, then we're in a lot of trouble. Once it's perfected, it seems to me cloning will be a sparingly used but helpful technique for helping couples conceive. People don't use in vitro fertilization unless they have to for the most part. Having kids the old-fashioned way is a lot more fun and a lot cheaper.

Jefferson McMahan is a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois and a scholar of beginning- and end-of-life ethics.

To focus on cloning as a treatment for infertility is strategically making the wrong move; it fosters hostility to cloning altogether because there are legitimate concerns about cloning as a treatment of infertility. Infertility is a problem, but there are other solutions.

It's not a problem like a potentially fatal disease; I see the importance of cloning lies elsewhere, with therapeutic cloning, where doctors would produce a cloned embryo of a person who needs certain organs or tissues. In those cases, we're not talking about cloning people. The issues about safety -- where it takes a large number of failures to come up with a successful live birth -- wouldn't arise.

The moral questions that get ignored by everybody in the public debate seem to be the status of human embryos, questions like: When do we begin to exist? Are we in some way identical to these embryos? Are they just the materials that eventually become human beings? And no one seems to have anything intelligent to say about that.

If embryos were people, I wouldn't advocate creating people just to yank their organs out. But they are not. Embryos have almost no moral status at all. Anybody who can't see that there are moral differences between a human being and an embryo is blind.

By Salon Staff

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