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Critics of Cloning Can't Accept Change



Column by A. Arif Husain
Columnist

People just can't accept change. It's as simple as that. From the time of the early astronomers, tormented for their claims of heliocentricity, to the recent headlines of Ian Wilmut, whose breakthrough cloning research reached an untimely halt, pioneers of knowledge have been continually stifled by a stubborn and unreceptive public. President Clinton's announcement of a moratorium on human cloning is yet another example of such mental inertia. Sadly, people are like pencils, the more you push them, the duller they become.

Not unlike many past debates, the recent cloning issue claims "ethics" as its war cry. Its critics hypothesize a sadistic world of human crop, engineered super-armies, and Frankenstein's monsters. I say, "Wake up and smell the DNA." It'll be plenty of time before the first clone-o-matics go on sale at the local drugstore. We're probably not yet in a position to get worked up. Sure, cloning may still prove dangerous in the hands of a few twisted sorts, but so is sawdust in the wrong hands, and you don't see us shutting down the log mills do you?

Regulating the use and application of potentially hazardous techniques is responsible and rational. That's why we have groups like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. Quashing the development of such techniques, however, is not quite so desirable. Where would O.J. Simpson be, for example, without the landmark PCR technology that proved that he was oh, bad example. My point is: government should not stifle science, and that's that.

I really have to wonder what political dilemmas Mr. Clinton thinks cloning will cook up. I suppose the average high school student on the other side of that bridge to the 21st century will be packing a concealed cloning kit. Teenage pregnancy will be replaced by the far more disparaging teenage cloning outburst. Could there be statutory cloning? Cloning by a minor? Perhaps Houston will become the new capital for drive-by clonings. Better roll up your window, it's a clone-eat-clone world out there.

Will welfare reform have to include provisions for illicit clones? Should health insurance cover cloning costs? Will the military have to expand its policy to "don't ask, don't clone"? Or maybe it's just the suggestion of a parade of Newt Gingriches popping out by the dozen that puts the butterflies in the presidential stomach.

The prospect of focally and specifically manipulating the forces of life is profound if not breathtaking. We, as the self-proclaimed molders and shapers of this planet, now face the opportunity to apply these skills at our own discretion, to our pets, to our livestock, and perhaps even to ourselves. Cloning may allow us to weed out genetic disease, enhance desirable traits, even deliver made-to-order progeny.

But wait, are these feats so new? A century ago Gregor Mendel showed us the predictive capacity of selective breeding. In modern times, everything from long-stem roses to dairy cattle benefit from this knowledge. More milk production, tastier meat, brighter reds, and sweeter smells, owe thanks to such breeding. These tactics are common practice and widely accepted.

But in principle, selectively mating two animals is as egregious as selectively cloning one of them. Either way, you are meddling with a natural phenomenon, altering it to suit your purposes. Somehow, though I am told, forcing two showcase cats to copulate is more ethical than duplicating one in a petri dish. Ethically, I don't see much of a difference.

I think I mentioned that people are stubborn. Unfortunately, they are also often pretty stupid. Ask the average Joe or Jane what their feelings are about recombinant DNA techniques, and most people are okay. Regardless, such techniques have been in full-force use in thousands of labs for a few decades now. They are responsible for myriad synthetic drugs such as insulin and growth hormone, as well as countless studies that have led to treatments for cancer, AIDS, and a host of other scientific advances. Wilmut's cloning research is only an expansion on the same idea. So why the big fuss? Because Joe or Jane realizes neither the beauty nor the power of religating a vector plasmid. Cloning, however, is the stuff of cartoons and big-time movies. Joe and Jane suddenly understand, to the dismay of the rest of us.

I suppose the severest disappointment is when Joe and Jane are Professor Jane and Professor Joe. Many researchers in the scientific community are equally hesitant, when it comes to the acceptance of cloning technology. I guess the days of men dying over their convictions are over, but I had at least hoped for a reasonable fight. I'm an equal opportunity fellow, so I don't consider stupid researchers any less stupid than their non-academic peers. I just hope that the leaders in our community of science are stable enough to trust themselves with risky research. Otherwise, I think I'll be turning in my lab coat.