In Harold Shapiro, U.S. President Bill Clinton may have found the perfect candidate to explore the mysteries surrounding animal—and potentially human—cloning. To be sure, as president of Princeton University in New Jersey, the 61-year-old Montreal-born economist is a respected academic. But Shapiro brings another fitting credential to his assignment as chairman of the Federal Bioethics Advisory Commission, charged last week with preparing a report for Clinton on the legal and ethical implications of the new cloning technology. He and his brother, Bernard, also a university administrator—at McGill in Montreal—are twins. “So I guess you could say that I was specially made for this job,” says Harold with a chuckle.
Unlike many of his academic colleagues, Shapiro is not unduly concerned about the ramifications likely to flow from the creation of that sheep called Dolly. “I have to admit it’s a startling event that poses a host of questions,” he acknowledges. “But at the same time, I have every confidence that we’ll be able to do something to keep it under control.” Modern society has learned to deal safely with “much scarier” technology, he argues, citing nuclear weapons and poison gas as examples. “The chances are,” says Shapiro, “this entire affair is going to end up producing a lot more benefits than costs.”
That is certainly the view of pharmaceutical firms involved in the effort to transform barnyards of domestic animal species into what amounts to four-legged drug factories. They see Dolly as merely another step along the road towards having genetically altered sheep, cows and pigs produce not only more and better milk and meat but also human proteins for use in the fight against cancer, cystic fibrosis and other diseases. They also talk of using cloning for the wholesale production of spare body parts— replacement hearts and livers, lungs and kidneys.
But the shock of seeing such a radical technology come so close to human application raises troubling questions about its possible uses. It is frightening how easily people can be subverted to evil purposes, says Dr. Gerald Klassen, a bioethicist and a professor of medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “We have the idea that doctors are particularly ethical and that they will always make the right choices,” says Klassen. “But then you look at the extraordinarily high participation rate of the medical profession in the eugenics experiments of Nazi Germany.”
While many European countries have regulations outlawing experimentation with human cloning, there are no such laws yet in Canada or the United States. Last June, the Liberal government in Ottawa introduced legislation that would prohibit human cloning, along with some other reproductive techniques. Based on the recommendations of the 1993 report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, the bill goes before House of Commons committee hearings this month, but is unlikely to become law before an election is called. “It’s hard to see any ethically defensible use of cloning for human beings,” says University of British Columbia geneticist Patricia Baird, who wrote the commission report. She draws an important distinction between cloning and earlier, more acceptable, technologies like test-tube reproduction and in vitro fertilization. “A baby born in vitro would have an egg and a sperm from
her mother and father,” she notes. “With cloning, you simply copy one of the cells of an adult person.”
Margaret Somerville of McGill’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and the Law counts cloning as the third miracle of modern medical science, after heart transplant surgery and test-tube reproduction. But she, too, wants it prohibited for humans. Somerville attributes revulsion to the very notion of cloning to “a moral intuition, an innate gut reaction that we’ve got to listen to when we sit down and do our cool logic.” What she sees developing is an argument about the essence of humanity. “It is a radical shift in the whole nature of the uniqueness of each human from a genetic point of view,” says Somerville.
So radical, in fact, that human beings are “psychologically unprepared” for the entire concept of cloning, says psychologist Charles Crawford of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “When we get the possibility of several individuals who are identical, it is hard for us to know how to react, to know whether it is good or bad.” But now that it has been accomplished with sheep, he expects it to happen with humans. ‘We will see people set up cloning clinics in less regulated, more enterprising underdeveloped countries,” says Crawford. “It could cause a major change in male-female relationships. We could totally disengage reproduction from sexuality.”
That, of course, is a concern from a theological perspective. “Procreation without the sexual act of husband and wife is considered morally wrong,” notes Most Rev. Adam Exner, Roman Catholic archbishop of Vancouver. He also foresees frightening social consequences resulting from dehumanizing the act of procreation. “For example, what kind of a self-image would a cloned offspring have?” wonders Exner. “What psychological problems might that cause? How would a lot of cloned individuals change society?” If Dolly the cloned sheep is a harbinger of what lies ahead, it may be time to reach for answers to those hard questions.
BARRY CAME with SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER in Toronto
Ethicists weigh potential costs and benefits of cloning
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