The world was shocked when "Dolly" the cloned sheep first appeared in our brave new world. A lamb, the cuddly icon of fairy tale and nursery rhyme and beloved of children everywhere, had grown up to be a sinister specimen in the world of adult science. Dolly, who developed premature arthritis at the young age of 6, would lead us down a crooked garden path.
And so she has, almost. Bill and Kathy are an American married couple who want to be identified only as living in "northeast America." They are waiting to fly off at a moment's notice to a country where the procedure is legal to have a cloned fetus implanted in Kathy's womb. Their anguished decision, as they describe it in the Sunday Herald of Glasgow, was not easy, and they made it only after years of painful failures of in vitro fertilization.
Their story is a sympathetic one, and yet it reads like the beginning of a moral tale with ominous overtones, as if written by Edgar Allen Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne, transcribed in the language of science fiction for 2002. Their story mixes cold calculation and emotional delusion, with the help of a scientist they call Dr. Z, as though he were a character lifted from a James Bond novel.
Dr. Z is Dr. Panos Zavos, originally from Cyprus, who operates the Andrology Institute of America, a fertility clinic in Kentucky. He has selected six couples, including Kathy and Bill, for human cloning experiments to be conducted outside the United States. More than 99 percent of the genes for Kathy's child will come from a nucleus taken from one of her cells. Bill will not in any way be a biological father, but he is sanguine about that: "I would love to have a daughter of Kathy's." If they were trying for a son they would have used Bill's cells.
The attention on Bill and Kathy follows closely on the release of the report, "Human Cloning and Human Dignity," by the president's Council on Bioethics. Bill and Kathy and anyone else pondering this complex subject should read it (available at www.bioethics.gov). It sets out in powerful moral and scientific terms why we should ban, totally, cloning to produce children.
Polls indicate that most Americans agree, but what's engaging about the report is that it brings rare eloquence and sensitivity to the discussion. The desire of any couple to have their child inherit their genetic likeness is a natural instinct: "Indeed some of the arguments in favor of cloning to produce children appeal to the deepest and most meaningful of our society's shared values."
But the council nevertheless urges a total ban, for even deeper and more meaningful reasons. The right to bear or beget a child does not include the right to have a child by whatever means. Cloning is nothing short of human experimentation, endangering the lives of all concerned - mother, egg donor, and most important, the child who has no say in the matter, and most of the risk.
The cloning process turns the child into a manufactured item, altering family identities and relationships, creating the possibility of a mother becoming a sister, a grandmother becoming a mother. It sets the stage for delivering human products according to a preselected genetic pattern. "Anyone who would clone merely to ensure a 'biologically related child,'" say the authors of this report, "would be dictating a very specific form of biological relation: genetic virtual identity."
Kathy certainly nurses such illusions. "My father was a very brilliant man, as were my uncles on my mother's side of the family," she says. "I come from a very warm, loving family and I hope that we can bring a child into this world who has that warmth and intelligence."
There's surprisingly little controversy about a prospective ban; nearly everyone is for it. Most critics have focused instead on the council's refusal to recommend a permanent ban on cloning embryos to be used in stem cell research into therapeutic purposes that researchers find promising in the treatment of debilitating diseases and disabilities. The council recommends a four-year moratorium to allow abundant debate.
The president wants a total ban on cloning now. The House has passed such a bill. The Senate is divided on cloning for therapeutic purposes. Nearly everyone starts out with a strong opinion, whether moral, scientific or personal. That's why a moratorium is the best way to go, challenging us all to learn more about a complicated subject that transcends politics and partisanship. A human guinea pig runs against everything most of us hold dear.