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The Ethics of Cloning

Elaine Wan

This weekend, I had the great experience of being persuaded by Jeremy Rifkin, the President of the Foundation of Economic Trends, that “[genetic technology] is a harlot.” As an aspiring biologist, I would have never thought of the laboratory as a red light district or would have considered my research as promoting prostitution. Perhaps, Robert A. Weinberg ’64, professor of biology at MIT and the 1997 Winner of the National Medal of Science, defended genetic technology and researchers the best when he answered Rifkin’s claim: “If [genetic technology] was a harlot, then I would be a misogynist.”

Rifkin is the author of 14 books, has served on many advisory boards for many countries including the United States and was the first featured speaker of this weekend’s MIT-Harvard Conference on Genetic Technology and Society. After Rifkin’s convincing and charismatic one-hour speech, there was only a handful of people in Kresge who were still skeptical about the apocalyptic implications of genetic technology and who still resisted the temptation to run to the library to read Francis Bacon’s “Novum Organum.” I have to admit that I was not one of them. I ran home to search on the web what the famous philosopher had to say about cloning.

The MIT-Harvard Conference on Genetic Technology organized by the MIT and Harvard chapters of the Hippocratic Society held a smashing forum that covered all subjects from cloning, eugenics, and business regulation of genes to public policy and genetically engineered foods.

As a student with deep interests in biology and the future of science, the forum was a great event to hear how different components of our social infrastructure have been affected following the last decade of biological advances. Following the successful cloning of the sheep Dolly in 1996 by Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in Scotland, questions have arisen: If we can clone sleep, can we clone people? And if we can, should we do so? The consensus among the speakers was that human cloning is immoral and should not be done. The clone would be biologically the same as the “parent” but would be mentally and socially an individual. Although the negative implications of genetic technology were thoroughly discussed, I left the conference with the feeling that human cloning was inevitable.

Speakers, especially the religious leaders, declared cloning immoral and suggested that there should be laws to ban human cloning. But I don’t think anyone had an idea how we can prohibit human cloning. Dr. Richard Seed, a physicist from Harvard University, has declared publicly that he has the means and enthusiasm to be the first to clone a human. Seed plans to implant an embryo with his DNA into his post-menopausal wife. If Seed is not successful, there will be other fanatics willing to spend as much money as necessary to fulfill their desires of immortality by cloning themselves. And if such people do not publicly declare their intentions, we may have human clones running around before we know it. Furthermore, we cannot control research that occurs outside national boundaries. The question is not whether cloning is immoral but whether we can stop it from happening in the first place.

Rifkin raises attention to many ethical concerns that set the pace for the other speakers. But Rifkin does not have a medical degree and is not a research scientist. He is extremely successful in stirring our fears. He predicts gene wars, genetic pollution, and fights for genetic rights in the future. He speaks of a future in which we would be able to select the genotype of our children to create a physically perfect, healthy, intelligent, future generation. But he warns us that such selection would demean the parent-child relationship because children will no longer be just a blessing, but “a blessing to become a program.” He says we would not be able to control the spreading of plants that are genetically engineered. We would start to believe that “we are our genes.” Most importantly, he convinced the audience that we can’t trust the federal government, life sciences companies, or universities to categorize “good and bad genes.”

The truth is that we don’t know who to trust when it comes to drawing lines to ban human cloning. Despite the expertise of all the speakers, I left the forum unconvinced that I could leave cloning in the hands of any one of them.

Genetic research has profound medical applications, which include the development of vaccines, research on embryonic stems cells, and cloning for infertile couples. Genetic technology has already moved into our lives in the form of genetically engineered cows to produce milk, annual flu vaccines and sex-selection reproductive technology.

Even though much concern has been raised over the hazards of genetic technology, it will move into our lives slowly and inevitably just as the automobile industry and nuclear technology has. Our parents protested against nuclear wars, and today we oppose the genetic technology to be used for human cloning. After the loss of many million lives in the World War II, countries worldwide agreed to end nuclear technology. After the cloning of Dolly, many bioethicists, researchers, and authors agreed to ban human cloning at the MIT-Harvard conference. Today nuclear research perpetuates, and so will human cloning in the future.