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Multiplying Issues

January 8, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: A Chicago physicist, Richard Seed, says he is ready to start work on cloning a human being. Cloning is an experimental process that has never been used on humans, but the possibility has been hotly debated ever since last February, when researchers in Scotland announced they had created a sheep named Dolly through cloning seven months earlier.

Cloning is the process of creating an embryo from the DNA of a single animal. If carried to term, the embryo develops into an exact genetic double of that animal. Dolly’s creator–Dr. Ian Wilmut–said he didn’t intend the process to apply to humans.

DR. IAN WILMUT, Scottish Scientist: It makes a jolly good story for a book or a film. It’s the reason why there is such interest in this topic, but it’s really fanciful and is not going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: But scarcely 10 days after Wilmut’s announcement, President Clinton banned federal funding for human cloning experiments in the United States, and he urged a voluntary moratorium on privately-funded experiments too.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Each human life is unique, born of a miracle that reaches beyond laboratory science. I believe we must respect this profound gift and resist the temptation to replicate ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: In June, a national bioethics commission urged Congress to outlaw human cloning for now. The President endorsed the call. But though several bills have been introduced, Congress has not acted.

This week, Richard Seed told The Washington Post that he has doctors, and four infertile couples, ready to work with him. And he told National Public Radio that mankind shouldn’t shrink from the prospect of cloning humans.

RICHARD SEED, NPR recording: God made man in his own image. God intended for man to become one with God. Cloning and the reprogramming of DNA is the first serious step in becoming one with God.

MARGARET WARNER: Seed’s proposal was widely condemned yesterday, drawing this response from the White House.

MIKE McCURRY, White House Spokesman: I think that the scientific community ought to make it clear to Dr. Seed, and I think the president would make it clear to Dr. Seed, that he has now elected to become irresponsible, unethical, and unprofessional should he pursue his course.

MARGARET WARNER: In Scotland, Dr. Wilmut reacted by saying the procedures he used to create Dolly, the sheep, weren’t developed enough to use on humans.

DR. IAN WILMUT: I’d remind you that in these experiments so far, about one quarter of the lambs that were born alive died within a few days because they hadn’t completed normal development. Now, what may be being suggested here is that copies of children would be being produced, and some of those would die soon after birth. So I think that for a clinician to be suggesting doing that is a quite appalling and sad thing for him to be suggesting.

MARGARET WARNER: But interviewed by ABC’s Ted Koppel on Nightline last night, Seed said the time to proceed with human cloning is now.

TED KOPPEL: Theoretically, if you can find the money, within the next couple of years, you might be able to–

RICHARD SEED: My target is a year and a half.

TED KOPPEL: A year and a half to two years.

RICHARD SEED: For a 60–for a two month pregnancy in a human female.

TED KOPPEL: And you think that’s a good idea?

RICHARD SEED: I think it’s a wonderful idea.

TED KOPPEL: For which reasons–and then we’ll take a break–just cite the reasons for me and then we’ll come back and analyze them.

RICHARD SEED: All the reasons I named. The treatment of fertility, for the advancement of science, for the advancement of technology, for the advancement of humankind, all of those wonderful reasons.

TED KOPPEL: All right, we’ll talk about–

RICHARD SEED: I think, I wonder, I think that little baby clones are wonderful.

MARGARET WARNER: Seed also said he was determined to proceed, despite the risk of defects.

RICHARD SEED: All the chromosomal and defect problems that you can name you are never going to find them in animals; you’ve got to do humans.

TED KOPPEL: What you’re telling me is, if in the course of your experiments the first or the second or the third of these experiments turns out to be flawed, you will destroy the embryo.

RICHARD SEED: Yes. I certainly will eliminate the embryo. And with the informed consent of the couple involved, and I don’t approve of abortion, but sometimes we do things we don’t approve of.

MARGARET WARNER: If Congress does ban human cloning in the United States, Seed said, he will take his work abroad.

MARGARET WARNER: Joining us now is Thomas Murray, a bioethicist at Case Western University in Cleveland and a member of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission; and Lee Silver, a molecular biologist and professor of genetics at Princeton University. His new book is Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World.

Tom Murray, what do you think of what Mr. Seed is proposing?

THOMAS MURRAY, National Bioethics Advisory Commission: Hello, Margaret. First of all, I think his science is no better than his theology, given what I’ve just heard. I think it’s a terrible idea.

The National Bioethics Advisory Commission recommended in June that there be a federal law prohibiting any efforts at human cloning for a period of years. We suggested three to five years at a minimum until we can find out whether or not this–whether or not the risks that would be posed to the child, who might be created by this technique, or to the women who would carry those children, to see whether those risks would, in fact, be conscionable.

MARGARET WARNER: And Lee Silver, this was the reaction among many in the medical and scientific community. Do you share it?

LEE SILVER, Princeton University: Yes, I do. I don’t think we should take Dr. Seed seriously. I don’t think that anybody–any physician that was ethical in any way–would go about proceeding down the cloning path until they were absolutely convinced that the procedure was not going to cause harm to the child that came out of the procedure.

I think the reason that people got so up in arms about Dr. Seed’s announcement is because they realized for the first time that cloning might proceed even if the government is against it, even if scientists are against it, even if ethicists are against it, if there are people willing to pay money. I think they will be able to find other people willing to satisfy their desire.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that’s a good idea?

LEE SILVER: Well, I don’t think cloning is so bad if the procedure is–we’re able to get it to the point where it is effective and where it doesn’t cause any birth defects. I think if a child is born healthy and happy and it’s loved by its parents, I don’t think it matters how that child began its development.

MARGARET WARNER: But you’re saying that you think it’s right now still too risky, we’re not at that point yet?

LEE SILVER: It’s certainly premature. I think it’s going to be 10 years, I would say, before we reach the point where this can be done without causing birth defects.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Murray, tell me your view of the risks and how far the medical and scientific community is away from this even being feasible.

THOMAS MURRAY: Dr. Wilmut and his colleagues published a paper just last month in the journal “Science,” and in that paper they reported a couple of very interesting results, one of which was that 46 percent of all the lambs created by a less radical technique, they cloned by using fetal DNA, not adult DNA.

MARGARET WARNER: This was not Dolly but another–

THOMAS MURRAY: Right. It was somewhat simpler than Dolly. Forty-six percent of those lambs died in the perinatal period; that is, either late in the pregnancy, or shortly after birth. That’s a horrendous, a horrendous rate.

And I think anybody who would attempt to do that with humans would be–that would be–I hope it would be criminal actually. Also, another fact from that research is of the pregnancies that actually delivered, none of them engaged in spontaneous labor, so they had to actually go in and induce labor. What that tells me is that something–this is far from a natural process, and there are many, many technical and scientific details to be worked out before you could even consider doing this in a human.

That’s the first level of concern. The second level of concern the Commission also paid attention. We didn’t think in 90 days we could do justice to it so we did want to sponsor and encourage a broad national debate. And that has to do with what the moral and social meaning of creating children by cloning would have for us as Americans.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying, in other words, that as far you’re concerned, it’s not just an issue of when, or when it’s scientifically feasible, but there’s a fundamental issue as to whether we should even be pursuing this?

THOMAS MURRAY: I think we should be doing the research with animals, absolutely, and I think we should be doing much of the research that goes on with cloning human tissues and cells. That’s all morally, I think, quite acceptable, and–

MARGARET WARNER: And explain–

THOMAS MURRAY: –that’s praiseworthy.

MARGARET WARNER: And just to explain the difference, what you’re saying is, it’s one thing to be talking about cloning human tissue to help fight disease; it’s another thing to clone for the purpose of making a baby.

THOMAS MURRAY: To make a child, absolutely. That’s a key distinction there. I think even if and when–and it’s a big if–if and when we get to the point where we say that the technology to create a human child by cloning is safe, we’d still have some very important moral questions to address.

MARGARET WARNER: Like?

THOMAS MURRAY: Like, what is it–why would people want to clone a child? Who–would they be cloning themselves, would they be cloning some stranger? People talk about cloning Michael Jordan.

Well, even if you did clone Michael Jordan, you might not get a great basketball player. It would be someone with presumably similar physical abilities but might completely lack the competitive drive that Michael Jordan has. So people might be very disappointed if they had really expected this person to be a successful and wealthy NBA star and now they’re not. We need to ask about whether cloning of human beings wouldn’t be just a kind of massive display of narcissism, whether it wouldn’t be the ultimate form of a kind of false self-love. And if that’s going to be largely the use that’s made of it, then I’m not sure that as a society we want to encourage that kind of use.

We need to at least investigate those kinds of questions, ask what values people think are being promoted by creation of children by cloning, and ask whether, in fact, those are values we as a people want to endorse because they either support what we think is good about family life, or they are destructive of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Silver, do you agree with the commission Mr. Murray was on that really we should have at least a temporary ban on human cloning experiments until these ethical and moral issues can be aired and discussed?

LEE SILVER: Well, I don’t think–I think the ethical issues will be aired. I don’t think we will ever reach a consensus in the same way we’ve never reached a consensus on the abortion issue.

There are going to be people who don’t like cloning for what I consider to be spiritual reasons mostly, and then there are going to be people who do want to use this technology.

I think what it’s important to understand is that there’s a very powerful drive that human beings have to want to have biological children, and there are certain people who are unable to have biological children due to infertility, and those people can spend large amounts of money using infertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, for example.

They’ll spend up to $100,000 to have a child that way. Cloning will be just one more technology that will allow certain kinds of infertile people to have their own children.

They don’t want to have anybody else’s children; they want to have their own children. And I just don’t see that as being so bad. It’s important to realize, of course, that cloning is not going to be the same as the progenitor. It’s simply going to be a later born identical twin. It’s going to have its own life, and I don’t see what is so terrible about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Murray, yesterday when this news came out, some Republican leaders in Congress said they were going to act on your recommendation; they were going to try to push through a ban on this. Do you think such a ban is feasible? Can you stop science and medicine with government action?

THOMAS MURRAY: Can you stop it? I mean, can you stop a renegade from running off and doing it? I think the answer is no because the technology itself is not that overly expensive and one can get ahold of it if you really want to. To get someone–a scientist who is good enough with the techniques and knowledgeable enough about how to do it, that would be much harder because I think all the relevant scientific associations have said you shouldn’t do this, you should observe a voluntary ban. So I think it will be difficult.

People may attempt it, I think. We’re very unlikely to see any successful attempts. The fact that some people might try to evade a ban has never been a good reason to not have a ban. I mean, we have–we say it’s wrong to beat children to death or to immerse a baby in scalding water. Some people do that, but we still think it’s right to have a ban on those practices.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Silver, you were–

LEE SILVER: Well, I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting to have a child that is biologically related to you that is happy and healthy and loved by its parents. And I think what it’ll happen is if there is a ban placed on this technology in the United States, clinics will open up in other countries, perhaps in the Caribbean, perhaps in Mexico, because there’s a lot of money to be made.

And even though it’s true that the societies have rejected the use of this technology, there are thousands of scientists and physicians out there who know how to do in-vitro fertilization, who know how to do–use glass needles to do the kinds of manipulations that have to be done, and some of them are going to be tempted to do it. And they’re doing it–

THOMAS MURRAY: Lee, there is an expression that hard cases make bad law. I think rare cases can make bad public policy. There are many, many options that couples have even today who want to have a child; either with a biological link with them, or not, and I understand that it can be extremely painful if you really want to have a child.

LEE SILVER: Well, I mean, the question is why–

THOMAS MURRAY: Cloning is going to be the–

LEE SILVER: But I don’t understand why you–

THOMAS MURRAY: –treatment of choice for an exceedingly few number of people.

LEE SILVER: Why–I agree with you–it’s not going to be very many people, even if this technology becomes safe and efficient, we’re talking about a small number of people that will want to use it. It’s not going to have any effect on society at large; that’s certainly true.

But why deny this technology to a couple where both members of the couple are unable to produce gametes? They can’t produce sperm or egg; they want to have a biological child. Why not allow them to use this technology to have a biological child?

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Silver and Mr. Murray, I’m sorry. We have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.