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Should We Fear Dolly?

By James K. Glassman

Tuesday, February 25 1997; Page A17
The Washington Post

Staring out from the front pages of newspapers across the country at the start of the week was a placid, pretty little sheep named Dolly. She's literally man-made, having been cloned last year by scientists in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Dolly is the biggest story of the year, maybe of the decade, or even the century. Her existence implies that we can control the biological destiny of humans. Ian Wilmut, an embryologist, created her by replacing the DNA (genetic material) of one sheep's egg with the DNA of another sheep's udder. This donor sheep was precisely identical to the little lamb that resulted: Dolly.

The work of Dr. Wilmut and his colleagues is enormously -- and probably swiftly -- useful. By cloning mammals such as sheep, scientists can more easily test treatments to cure human diseases, or even produce treatments (like health-giving proteins) by using the cloned animal as a sort of factory.

Engineered animals like pigs could be cloned and harvested for organs to transplant into sick humans. And cloning can be used to develop meatier lamb chops (sorry, Dolly).

But, while Wilmut's work opens magnificent horizons and liberates scientists to think about new ways to extend life and diminish suffering, the reflexive reaction to the news was summed up in a headline to The Post's story: "Technique's Use With Humans Feared."

Remember the 1978 movie "The Boys From Brazil," in which aging Nazis plotted to clone little Hitlers? What about rich people cloning themselves? Or movie studios cloning beautiful, talented actresses to be used in another generation? Or childless couples using the clones of brilliant philosophers (or of Bill Gates, for that matter) to produce super-brainy kids?

Dr. Wilmut says, "There is no reason in principle why you couldn't" clone humans, but he added, "All of us would find that offensive."

These views were echoed by bio-ethicists, such as George Annas of Boston University, who told The Post, "Most people who have thought about this believe [human cloning] is not a reasonable use and should not be allowed."

Maybe. But let's not be too hasty in writing new criminal statutes every time there's an advance in science. I agree that using clones with the aim of producing a son who gets into Harvard or a daughter who becomes a billionaire is, at the very least, offensive. (It won't work either; environment counts.) But fear of abusing human clones should not deter research beyond Wilmut's discovery.

Politics, superstition and excessive moralizing (not to mention greedy plaintiffs' attorneys) have already had a chilling and distorting effect on science.

Consider research on the embryos of humans. Responding to political pressure, President Clinton overruled a panel convened by the National Institutes of Health in 1994 and stopped NIH funding of such work. At least it's still legal for the private sector to do human embryo research, which could lead to cures for diseases such as Parkinson's.

Cloning people is against the law in Britain and other countries, but not in the United States. I don't think it should be -- certainly not at this stage. Research that aims at cloning humans could end up having other, more benign and practical uses. Trying to stop intellectual progress, in any form, is a terrible mistake.

It's also an act of hubris for politicians. The New York Times yesterday quoted the University of Missouri's Ronald Munson, another of those bio-ethicist fellows, as saying, "The technology is not, in principle, policeable. . . . These are relatively standard labs. That's the amazing thing about biotechnology. It's fundamentally quite feasible."

In other words, you couldn't really stop research on human cloning if you wanted to. That's the same status enjoyed by other technological advances -- including the Internet. As soon as it became powerful, provocative and widespread, politicians decided they knew just what to do with it: regulate it and tax it. They tried to ban indecent speech that could reach children, and now they're trying to find ways to ensure that the electronic web won't be a tax-free zone.

We're all going to have to get used to the fact that the world has changed. Anyone with a phone jack can plug into the Internet. And scientists with "relatively standard labs" will probably be cloning humans. The state is no longer powerful enough to control the creations and expressions of human minds.

In general, that's a good thing, though, of course, the side effects can be dreadful. The irony is that technological liberation may lead to a stronger, not weaker civil society. In a world in which nearly everything is possible, we'll learn quickly that personal, familial and social (rather than government-imposed) restraints are absolutely necessary to the functioning of the world.

What's remarkable about the Internet, for example, is the relative paucity of smut, considering the access and anonymity that are available. But maybe we shouldn't be surprised. After all, there's little to stop determined folks from poisoning the water supply or destroying the subways. It's not just a thin blue line that protects civilization but an innate desire, by nearly every human, to temper freedom with order.

So should we fear Dolly -- and what might follow? Tocqueville wrote that, while citizens of democracies "are haunted by visions of what will be," they also know that "in this direction their unbounded imagination grows and dilates beyond all measure." Sure, worry. But let's also celebrate.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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