Commentary: Human Cloning: Not When, But Why

Human cloning is poised to jump from theory to practice. In late January, a team of reproductive experts launched an effort to clone children for infertile couples. The group includes Dr. Severino Antinorini, the Italian fertility expert who enabled a 63-year-old woman to have a child, and it has already attracted 10 couples. The goal: to produce a viable embryo within 18 months.

When Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, made her debut in 1997, there was a huge outcry over the possibility of human cloning. Several countries passed laws banning the practice. In the U.S., attempts at human cloning must be approved by the Food & Drug Administration--which has yet to approve any--and no federal funds may be used.

"WEAK POSITION." But all the laws in the world can't stop a determined scientist and desperate potential parents from trying to create life. Even if Antinorini doesn't succeed in creating an embryo, someone else will. "For the best of reasons or the worst of reasons these efforts are going to go ahead and any one country is in a very weak position to do much about it," says David. J. Roth, professor of social medicine at Columbia University School of Medicine. "Efforts to regulate [cloning], even by international bodies, are not very likely to be successful."

As proof, note that U.S. fertility clinics are already allowed to try whatever it might take to create a baby, short of cloning. And there is only a fine line separating cloning from some of the most advanced infertility treatments. In one method, the nucleus is plucked from a woman's defective egg and transferred to the cytoplasm of a healthy donor egg that has been stripped of genetic material. The reconstructed eggs are then fertilized with sperm and inserted into the uterus. On paper, this is only slightly less challenging than Antinorini's cloning technique, in which a man's stem cells will be inserted into an egg that is stripped of genetic material and then stimulated to divide.

So what can or should be done? For a start, the government can insist that clinics pursuing cloning follow certain guidelines. They should explain to prospective parents that cloning is still experimental and risky. While hundreds, maybe thousands of sheep, cows, pigs, and goats have now been cloned, only about 10% of the attempts result in births, and fatalities run high in the newborns. No one knows what terrible side effects may eventually manifest themselves in the animals that do survive. There are some ominous indications, though, including abnormally large and fragile newborns and premature aging.

Trial and error may be acceptable with animals; malformed infants dying painfully at birth or living with horrible defects are another story. We can't just keep aborting the fetuses until we get it right. Even the most militant pro-choice activists would blanch at such a prospect.

But assume--and most scientists do--that we eventually figure out how to clone without complications. Then what are the objections? We needn't fear an army of supermen, or evildoers brought back from the grave. It's easier to hire killers than to make them. And in any case, clones are not exact copies of their predecessors but merely vessels for the same genes. Environment will have a huge impact on the children. "At the end of the day, clones will be like test-tube babies," says Arthur L. Kaplan, bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Relatively few people will use the technology, so there won't even be that many."

So is cloning nothing more than a cure for a disease--just another way for infertile couples to make sure they have a genetically linked child? It's not that simple. Even the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, in a November ethics report, admits that many people see a profound gulf between creating a child by mixing two genetic lineages vs. a single-genome procedure. In this view, "[cloning] represents a dramatic departure from natural or assisted conception," the report says, "and it can be compared with the production of a child to serve the needs of adults."

What a burden for those children, to know that their parents were striving to re-create themselves or someone deceased. And even if that was their intent, it won't work. We cannot duplicate what was. We cannot breed out all chances of disease, nor preordain that our children will be outgoing and successful. We cannot create another Tiger Woods, or a Bill Gates, or an Aretha Franklin, just because we have a few of their cells on ice. So why try?

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