Had Richard Seed been your typical scientist - prone to caution and qualifying statements - he would never have become famous. If he'd even looked different, more mousy and cerebral, he might not have got the huge exposure that he did. But as it was, his habit of uttering alarming far-fetched statements, his didactic manner an forbidding appearance ensured him his time in the media spotlight. For several days at the beginning of 1998, he became a household name as the first person who was going to clone human beings.1)
There are, in fact, two ways of cloning animals and, potentially, humans. The first is by embryo splitting, which already happens naturally in the case of identical twins. From time to time a very early-stage embryo will divide to form two separate individuals who are genetically identical. It's possible to repeat this process artificially, but because only a very few cells are available at the stage where they divide, this method can only result in a few clones.2)
Neither the increased legislation nor the public condemnation has caused Seed to question the validity of his plan to clone human being. A Harvard-trained physicist who started working in reproductive sciences 20 years ago, he co-founded a company in the 1970s that developed a technique for transferring embryos in cattle. Later, he used the same technique on humans, attempting to transfer embryos from fertile to infertile women.3)
If the idea of human cloning makes most of us feel uncomfortable, why don't governments simply ban it outright? The problem is that we risk throwing the (cloned) baby out with the bath water. The technology could be enormously useful. Following the outrage over Seed's announcement, American biotech companies and scientists were fearful that hasty, badly worded legislation would restrict valuable, ethically acceptable research.4)
Nevertheless, the idea of cloning is terrifying to many because it seems to diminish us and at the same time to give us enormous power, a power we don't think we are ready for. But Steve Jones, professor of genetics at university College, London, says we probably shouldn't worry so much.5)
A human clone, it is said, would be a person's identical twin born 20 or 30 years later. A clone might look like a younger version of the same predispositions and inclinations but, "You're going to get someone who is raised by different parents, in a different time, who will fall in love with different people,' says Thomas Murray, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics, Cleveland, Ohio.6)
The issue of human cloning raises a hundred questions to which there are few clear answers. What about the situation where a mother wants to "replace" a daughter who has died in a car crash? Supposing a couple had a child with kidney failure: would it be right for them to clone a sibling to be a compatible organ donor?7)
'If I look at some of my deepest fears,' says Steve Jones, 'they're not about cloning. But I do have fears about genetics. I'm often shocked that my own? students don't think there are ethical problems. Many have the feeling that, if you can do it, then you should.' It's a pity science can't be made to stop, back up a bit. We haven't had time to fully absorb the ideas surrounding human cloning, and already we're moving into even more ethically murky waters. Until we get the issues about cloning sorted out, what chance do we have with an even more complicated matter - our ability to make offspring who are far superior to us genetically? Or whatever happens then to pass as being superior.