To Clone or not to Clone? An Answer from our Genome

This article was published April 19, 2001 in the online edition of the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper in Silicon Valley.
Earlier this year, the physicians Panos Zavos and Severino Antinori announced their intention to clone human beings. These medical entrepreneurs, unlike others who before them have held human cloning in their cross hairs, are trained in the techniques of laboratory reproduction of humans and animals. So when they spoke, people listened, although for the most part with dismay rather than admiration.

Mainstream scientists were quick to criticize the two fertility specialists. This week for example, Ian Wilmut, the Scottish researcher who cloned Dolly, and his MIT colleague Rudolf Jaenisch, wrote a blistering critique in the prestigious journal, Science. They pointed out that animals from all five mammalian species cloned to date are almost always born with a variety of developmental abnormalities because the techniques used in cloning directly cause subtle, yet serious genetic flaws. To apply these techniques to humans, they reasoned, would be “dangerous and irresponsible”, because the risk of making a human life burdened by severe disability would be unacceptably high.

The appeal for restraint issued to Zavos and Antinori by their professional peers is based on careful consideration of the basic principles of good medicine: above all, do no harm. For that reason alone, it is a call worthy not only of the consideration, but also the acquiescence of the two would-be cloners. Yet scientific arguments alone seem to fall short of providing a definitive, indeed an authoritative NO to human cloning. What Zavos and Antinori’s many critics seem to be saying is NOT YET. Let’s get the kinks out of cloning using animal systems first, before we try it on humans. Science seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to offer truly convincing arguments against human cloning.

On the memorable date of June 26, 2000, Drs. Francis Collins and Craig Venter announced that the human genome had been sequenced. The book of life was opened and we were all invited to read and learn its doctrine. The first lessons were clear and compelling. We learned that the astounding range of human individuality -- the traits that distinguish one person from another -- can be explained by tiny variations of tiny fractions of the genetic sequence, yet no specific genetic differences could be identified to distinguish members of one race from those of another. "We are all 99.9 percent the same at the DNA level," said Collins.

We also learned that we all harbor at least 50 measurable genetic abnormalities that can lead to serious illness and death, implying that there are no perfect human genetic specimens. These data force us to acknowledge the common origin of the human family as well as the inherent frailty of the human condition. But perhaps the most important lesson, and the one with most relevance to human cloning, could be gleaned by reading “between the lines” of our genetic code.

In his comments to the media, Venter seemed to grudgingly acknowledge a real mystery clouding his experiences as a man of science. On the one hand, he confronted the plain fact of how very little it takes to make our bodies -- just a few molecules, almost identical in structure and a fraction more numerous than those of worms, fruit flies and mice -- and how frail, vulnerable from within we are to disease and death. He recalled hard experiences as a military medic in Vietnam, and how witnessing the heroism and suffering of men and women his own age made him recognize another, higher dimension to human existence. In the end, he could only surrender to what seemed an intuition: “I realized”, he said, “that the human spirit was at least as important as our physiology. We are clearly much much more than the sum totals of our genes”.

And so, when celebrating one of the greatest human achievements of the 20th century, the spokesmen of modern science invite us to contemplate transcendent, spiritual values which so radically distinguish us from our animal kin. They do so because, as good scientists, they can learn only the lessons offered by their data. When wrestling with the issue of human cloning, we cannot ignore these findings that so brightly color our understanding of what and who we are. We can know that man is more than molecules, and on the plane of the spirit, much, much more than our close kin the animals.

"Today, we celebrate the revelation of the first draft of the human book of life”, said Collins. “We have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God". Data from human genome compels us to recognize and to reverence the transcendence of human life, and to reject cloning as an ugly violation of that transcendence. At times, in this cynical age in which we live, some intelligent but jaded individuals can seek to justify the self-serving manipulation of other members of the human family. In doing so, they choose to ignore the painfully obvious traits of a higher, spiritual order that grace our animal existence with an extraordinary character. To say NO to human cloning, and other attempts to turn human persons into products for manufacture, is to affirm the there is much, much more to man than genes.

No comments: