Cloned sheep makes us examine bioethics

Dolly, the cloned sheep, has taken the world by storm, and nothing will ever be the same. Dr. Ian Wilmut, a Scottish embryologist, announced on Feb. 22 that his lab had created the first mammal cloned from an adult. In the wake of this report, the press, governments and religious thinkers have expressed fears and demanded regulations from the new field of cloning. But rather than make snap judgments and ill-informed decisions, we need to cautiously learn what Dolly means from a scientific standpoint and examine our fears and hopes about this technology.
Ever since Charles Darwin published his Theory of Evolution, humanity’s claim to uniqueness has been challenged. Cloning has exacerbated the problem. Now even our genes, which give us our individual biological uniqueness (except in the case of identical twins), can theoretically be copied and transplanted to create another human being. Naturally, we feel frightened, insulted, challenged and excited simultaneously. These emotions have been reflected in popular culture since cloning first was conceived. Movies like “The Boys From Brazil,” “Blade Runner” and last year’s “Multiplicity” explored cloning in different manners, but all had an underlying warning: This technology cannot be controlled — it’s a Pandora’s box for any who dabble in it.
Now, governments feel the same way. There has been a growing clamor for regulating biotechnology for some time. The growth of the organic food industry partially stems from consumers’ fears of genetically altered foods. President Clinton has already announced that a government panel will study the implications of Dolly. Any laws, however, will be impossible to enforce. Scientists can continue genetic manipulation — especially if funded by wealthy individuals or corporations — out of the public eye. Internationally, rogue nations could develop secret biogenetics labs — if plutonium is hard to control, imagine policing DNA replication.
Perhaps these concerns are premature. After all, it took Wilmut almost 300 tries and great expense to clone one sheep. No one knows if the process his lab used will work for other animals or humans. Also, Dolly was created using DNA from a six-year-old sheep. Whether this will affect Dolly’s health or aging pattern remains to be seen. Furthermore, cloning technology potentially will provide us with animals that produce life-saving drugs or transplantable organs.
At the heart of fears about cloning is a question: What makes a human being human? Wilmut, who has for the most part avoided discussing the ethics of his creation, told the New York Times, “You need to understand the biology. People are not genes. They are so much more than that.” Despite this reassurance, we need to watch the new biotechnology and continue to discuss and consider its implications. While it holds much medical promise, scientists need to be aware of the public’s concerns. Most important, we need to remember that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it has to be. Cloning humans can remain the stuff of science fiction. Although regulation is useless, the debate about cloning is not. It will make both scientists and laypeople more aware of the issues and improve communication between the two groups.