Messing With Mother (Nature)

Dicusses moral and ethical aspects of genetic engineering or cloning as applied to human beings. Perfect human beings as a promise of genetic engineering; Advantages of genetic enhancements; Debatable issues concerning human cloning; Different views on the effects of human cloning.

By Marian M. Jones, Jill Neimark, published on March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Take cloning to the farthest, eeriest, most ambitious and strange reaches of your imagination, and what do you get? A Leave-it-to-Beaver family of Mom, her clone, Dad, and his clone? Or something a little more peculiar: American Gothic, with generations of enigmatic, dour-faced clones holding their raised pitchforks in a field of wheat?

The real revolution in the world of cloning, however, is not about clones. It's about what made cloning possible in the first place. Something called nuclear transfer. It's about the whole brave new universe of genetic engineering, and cloning is just the cute little pug nose-tip of the iceberg.

A clone is essentially a delayed identical twin. But with the same technology—adding genetic enhancements to a cell and growing it into an embryo—you might engineer your unborn child to be resistant to AIDS, heart disease, or cancer. Or like select breeds of tomatoes, to grow small and plump, or large and glossy. And, as we continue to unravel the secrets of the human genome, limitless possibilities will fan open before us. The problem, according to Lee Silver, Ph.D., a molecular biologist and author of Remaking Eden (Avon): "This engineering will be used only be people who can afford it... it could produce two different species. Every scientist I've talked to believes this will happen."

Welcome to the ethical dilemmas of the 21st century. From President Clinton's call for a ban on human cloning to Chicago physicist Richard G. Seed's plan to open a cloning clinic, the fun has just begun.

The eminent Lewis Thomas, M.D., once wrote that he couldn't envision a clone "as anything but an absolute, desolate orphan." Scientist Richard Dawkins said: "Wouldn't you love to be cloned? I would, out of pure curiosity."

But who gets the option? Polio vaccine was available to everyone, genetic vaccines are prohibitively expensive. "We could perfect cloning for humans in about five years," says Silver, "and as soon as this happens, the technology for genetic engineering will be available." He believes it can't be stopped: "Even if it is made illegal, someone will go to a clinic in the Caribbean."

"I see serious dangers in all the choices," says psychiatrist Willard Gaylin. "All the sociological structures that define the family are now up for grabs." But maybe in worrying about these issues, we are "finding high-tech things to scare ourselves about -- and taking the focus off our real problems."