Will we follow the sheep?

I thought you may like to read an article from Time that reflects on our future and the possibility of human cloning. The article was written after Dolly was cloned in 1997.

It’s a busy morning in the cloning laboratory of the big-city hospital. As always, the list of people seeking the lab’s services is a long one–and, as always, it’s a varied one. Over here are the Midwestern parents who have flown in specially to see if the lab can make them an exact copy of their six-year-old daughter, recently found to be suffering from leukemia so aggressive that only a bone-marrow transplant can save her. The problem is finding a compatible donor. If, by reproductive happenstance, the girl had been born an identical twin, her matching sister could have produced all the marrow she needed. But nature didn’t provide her with a twin, and now the cloning lab will try. In nine months, the parents, who face the very likely prospect of losing the one daughter they have, could find themselves raising two of her–the second created expressly to help keep the first alive.

Just a week after Scottish embryologists announced that they had succeeded in cloning a sheep from a single adult cell, both the genetics community and the world at large are coming to an unsettling realization: the science is the easy part. It’s not that the breakthrough wasn’t decades in the making. It’s just that once it was complete–once you figured out how to transfer the genetic schematics from an adult cell into a living ovum and keep the fragile embryo alive throughout gestation–most of your basic biological work was finished. The social and philosophical temblors it triggers, however, have merely begun.

Only now, as the news of Dolly, the sublimely oblivious sheep, becomes part of the cultural debate, are we beginning to come to terms with those soulquakes. How will the new technology be regulated? What does the sudden ability to make genetic stencils of ourselves say about the concept of individuality? Do the ants and bees and Maoist Chinese have it right? Is a species simply an uberorganism, a collection of multicellular parts to be die-cast as needed? Or is there something about the individual that is lost when the mystical act of conceiving a person becomes standardized into a mere act of photocopying one?

Last week President Clinton took the first tentative step toward answering these questions, charging a federal commission with the task of investigating the legal and ethical implications of the new technology and reporting back to him with their findings within 90 days. Later this week the House subcommittee on basic research will hold a hearing to address the same issues. The probable tone of those sessions was established last week when Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told another subcommittee that cloning a person is “repugnant to the American public.”

Though the official responses were predictable–and even laudable–they may have missed the larger point. The public may welcome ways a government can regulate cloning, but what’s needed even more is ways a thinking species can ethically fathom it. “This is not going to end in 90 days,” says Princeton University president Harold Shapiro, chairman of President Clinton’s committee. “Now that we have this technology, we have some hard thinking ahead of us.”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,986024,00.html#ixzz1XR729x3T

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