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EDITORIAL: To Clone a Sheep

Wednesday, February 26 1997; Page A18
The Washington Post

IF AN EARLY consensus can be said to have emerged in the reactions to Dolly the cloned sheep, it's that Dolly's existence and the success of the technique that made her are signals of some profound alteration in the human condition. This may of course be so, and, whether it is or not, a certain amount of awe is in order at the breaking of so long-standing and symbolic a scientific barrier as the replication of genetic identity. But it's far from obvious that the loss of that barrier must inevitably take us to a place where the issues are unreachable by the tools of morality and common sense. And this will be true even if researchers quickly solve the large number of unanswered technical questions that separate Dolly's cloning from the feared science-fic\tion scenarios of human mass production, slave factories and carbon-copied armies.

The most common fears in this regard are that people would clone themselves or others in multiple for ghastly purposes such as organ replenishment and that people would clone themselves directly rather than have children out of a desire for immortality or a pure access of ego. But it's not clear why cloned people, however they were grown and even though they were genetically identical to previously existing people, would be (or be seen as) any less "real people" than the second of a pair of identical twins. The cool-headed scientific cautions being heard post-Dolly about the limits of this strictly genetic understanding of identity -- can a person be considered still alive just because his identical twin outlives him, and is there any reason to think clones would resemble one another any more perfectly than identical twins? -- ought to take the edge off this second set of fantasies, although we suppose that the people likeliest to succumb to the temptation are just the people one least wants to have around in perpetuity. As for the ethics of growing a replica of oneself for organ transplant, or six replicas to use as slaves, why would these actions be any less repellent if performed on identically cloned offspring than they would be if done on offspring -- identical or otherwise -- manufactured by their parents in the traditional manner?

Some of these issues have already been sneaking up on society in the form of debates over surrogate motherhood and infertility research. President Clinton Monday instructed a panel to reopen the question of whether the government should fund, and thereby impose some regulation on, the forms of human embryo research that were earlier banned from such funding. These issues, though, should not be confused with the specific concern that led to the earlier funding ban -- namely, that human embryos were being created in laboratories for the express purpose of being experimented on and destroyed in the process. The process involved in the sheep-cloning by definition involved no new embryos -- that is, newly fertilized eggs constituting brand-new individuals -- but "only" doctored elements from the cell material of two different female sheep and the surrogate womb of a third. Technically, scientifically, this feat is amazing enough. It's important that we not allow the amazement and the novelty to obscure those ethical landmarks that we already have.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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