More of you and me? Hello, Dolly: Replicating a sheep raises concerns about cloning humans.

March 03, 1997

SURROGATE MOTHERS, in vitro fertilization, egg and sperm donation -- none of these developments in reproductive technology seemed to set off as many urgent ethical alarms as the advent in Scotland of a lamb named Dolly who is an exact VTC genetic replica of an adult sheep. Coming much sooner than many scientists had expected, the successful cloning of a mammal raises hopes and fears, some more justified than others.

After all, a California woman has just won a hotly contested "custody" battle centering on 12 vials of frozen sperm deposited by her late lover so that she could bear his child after his death. His grown children objected to the arrangement, but it was upheld in court.

Meanwhile, women unable to conceive their own children successfully give birth to babies carrying the genetic material of their fathers and another woman who agrees to donate an egg. These events, however awesome or even ethically puzzling, still depend on the old-fashioned method of reproducing the species through the combination of genes from a man and a woman. Dolly represents a significant and potentially frightening departure.

Her existence, made possible through a relatively simple procedure, prompts worries about cloning human beings. In our view, some of these worries are as far-fetched as the science fiction stories that first envisioned human cloning years ago. Using cloning to produce armies of slaves? Not likely -- clones come as infants in need of nurture, not as full-fledged adults equally skilled as their genetic twin.

Moreover, even if wide-scale human cloning became possible and practical, there is no moral or legal reason to think that the people who resulted could be treated differently from anyone else. And if identical twins, despite their similarities, turn out very differently, so would clones.

People are more than a mass of genetic material. Choices, opportunities and the unpredictable twists and turns of life all combine to make each person unique.

Are the dangers of cloning greater than any possible good? A challenging question, and one worthy of the eminent panel President Clinton has asked to review the issue. The 18-member National Bioethics Advisory Commission will examine whether Dolly's birth necessitates a need to review federal policies on human embryo research.

Earlier efforts to examine these issues were caught in the ideological winds of the abortion debate. One result has been that the federal government now funds no research on human embryos -- thus abdicating any role in regulating such work.

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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