lesson 17
                                     Should We Clone Humans?

One of the abiding Scifi nightmares has been the idea that we could one day replicate human beings asexually, just by copying material from human cells. Luckily, scientific assessments have generally regarded this as something pretty remote.

Roslin’s scientists have announced that the nuclear transfer technique they have applied to produce Dolly could be in theory applied to humans. Whether anyone would try and whether it would work is another matter. But the “what if” question must now be asked with much more seriousness than would have ever been justified before.

Two aspects of the Roslin discovery have set the world of biotechnology alight. One is the fact that a somatic tissue from an adult has been used to produce a live animal. This has rewritten one of the laws of biology. Up to now it has been assumed that once animal cells go through the mysterious process of differentiation, and become a particular type of cell, they cannot go back to being undifferentiated.

The second is that you can clone a large mammal from the cells off an adult of the species. It is this second aspect that has caught the public imagination,because it has dramatically brought forward the question of whether it could be possible to realize the Scifi dreams of cloned humans. Faced with such a fertile prospect, the human imagination runs riot, and the media have come up with some very bizarre ideas. For example, one article claimed that we might clone humans to select out genetic defects of select for desirable traits.

Scientifically it would still be a big leap to go from cloning a sheep to cloning humans and it is premature to discuss this as if it were inevitably going to happen. But this discovery means that we have at least got to ask the question, “what if?”

Cloning humans is ethically unacceptable. Dr. Wilmut, the scientist involved, and his colleagues at Roslin have made it quite clear that they think that to clone humans would be unethical. On principle, to replicate any human technologically is against the basic dignity of the uniqueness of each human being.

Some have speculated whether it would be possible on the basis of these discoveries to grow not an entire human being, but living organs from cells. This might have certain potential to treat diseased organs or malfunctioning body processes. There would be many practical questions to answer, but it might be less of a problem ethically. One ethical point would be that it would only be done for the benefit of the individual involved, or, with appropriate informed consent, a close relative. Perhaps the biggest ethical problem would be that of “gradualism.” By a progression of small steps you could eventually provide all the conditions needed to clone the entire human being. This raises a much deeper question about how the direction of research is determined and controlled.