The ethical import of creation Society must consider moral questions before the cloning of man

March 02, 1997|By ADIL SHAMOO

The cloning of humans is coming. The pressing need for advancements in medical technology and the drive of scientific curiosity cannot override the importance of examining the theological, moral and ethical ramifications of cloning. We must marshal our resources to initiate a debate.

As the 20th century has come to be known for the Information Revolution, so will the 21st century be known for the Biological Revolution. Exactly where the breakthrough cloning of a sheep by researchers at the Roslin Institute in Scotland will lead is anyone's guess, but we can be certain of one thing: The ethical, moral and theological frameworks of our society will be drastically affected, challenged, and, at times, perhaps even devalued. It is not too late in the game to help shape the policies and politics that will govern this remarkable technology.

In the late 1980s, the United States embarked on a major undertaking: the human genome project. Discussions about its moral and ethical implications came and went as the bureaucracy lumbered forward, but what value is there in such discussion after the project had begun and millions of dollars had already been invested? This after-the-fact debate precludes many voices in society from addressing the issue of proceeding down such an important path in the first place.

As a society, we did not have the luxury of examining potential ramifications when the advancements in atomic science were being made - the nation needed to act quickly. There were positive byproducts of the dreaded bomb, including invaluable scientific and medical breakthroughs. But what disasters will cloning bring if we act too quickly? The cloning of humans is

inevitable: There are too many misguided governments and dictators, too many scientists out for personal gain, too much money at stake and too much time has been invested to suggest any other conclusion.

The benefits to humankind of cloning and genetic engineering are incalculable - from the creation of farm animals engineered to produce specific drugs and "humanized" organs to the prevention of parent-child disease transmission. However, these benefits must be weighed against the negative consequences of moving too quickly into what is not only a biomedical question, but a theological one.

What of cloning a child for infertile couples? If that is acceptable, why not create a clone of a child who was lost in a tragic accident? Is this "playing God," or is it a logical extension of a remarkable biomedical technology? The split between science and theology threatens to widen.

What will be the impact on our society's collective psyche and mores? The ability to clone an adult human - to create from a single cell an exact physiological replica - challenges (though does not necessarily refute) the essence of the Judeo-Christian theology upon which much of Western thought and tradition are based. The fundamental issues - conception, birth, marriage, afterlife, and even God - are called into question.

Society will require time to digest the enormous ramifications of cloning - not two weeks or two years or even two decades. It took centuries for theologians and laymen to come to grips with the new realities imposed by the advances in science in the 17th and 18th centuries - and the debate continues.

Scientists cannot expect the majority of society to believe us when we propose to move gradually into cloning technology and then only after comprehensive research and examination. Economic pressures and yearning for knowledge are too potent to quell the scientist's desire to conquer the unknown.

Pundits and scientists chafe at regulations that hamper their creativity and the direction of their research. There is an understandable concern about such regulations forcing scientists to miss, or worse, ignore new and exciting knowledge. But at what cost to society is this curiosity satisfied? The potential for abuse and misuse of genome and cloning technology has always been a quiet threat. Now the threat is at our door, and we must act.

Ideally, government acts in support of the wishes of the people. Our government must take the lead in formulating policy regarding the cloning of humans. President Clinton has called upon the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to study and report back to him within 90 days the ethical and legal implications of the recent developments in cloning. It is imperative that this policy be created and enacted with the broadest conceivable range of applications in mind.

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