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Making a production over reproductions

by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

Before we can clone human beings we need two things: people who want to be cloned, and someone with enough expertise to do it. Assisted reproduction specialists have been saying for years that the techniques to clone humans are available, and that it is just a matter of time until someone tries. Dr. Panos Zavos, a reproductive physiology specialist from the University of Kentucky, made a big news splash last week when he announced that he and an international group of colleagues are making plans to start cloning humans in a clinic at an undisclosed location. So far, all they have cloned is headlines (lots of them), but they may have the know-how and the patients to be successful, so why limit their efforts and their patients' desires?

Not in my (funding) backyard

The federal government has made it clear that human cloning research cannot use taxpayer dollars, and in practice that extends even to privately funded efforts that take place at institutions receiving federal support. But the reach of the federal government so far only extends to funding restrictions, and after the announcement that Dolly the sheep had been cloned, Congress considered but did not act on legislation that would have made cloning illegal in the United States. Most scientists agree that even without the ethical concerns raised by cloning, it still carries far too many unknowns to be safe to try on humans.

Unsafe at any price

There is too little experience with cloning in the animal world to know whether clones develop differently, age at a different rate or are more or less susceptible to illness or disease. If even the basic risks of cloning are unknown, how can we allow it to be used on humans? This presumes that scientists can find enough human eggs to try. If experience with animal cloning is any indication, it will take hundreds of trials to get even one cloned embryo to develop. As anyone who has gone through infertility treatments can attest, individual women can donate only a few eggs at a time and egg donors are difficult and expensive to recruit. Given the existing shortage of egg donors, it doesn't make sense to waste a very precious resource on mostly unsuccessful and risky efforts to clone. At least not until techniques have been improved, even in animals.

Not exactly as advertised

Why do people want to use cloning at all? There seem to be some sincere reasons, such as helping otherwise infertile couples or cloning a child who has died. But prospective patients may not get what they expect. Even if a clone amounts to creating a genetic twin, it's likely that clones would be different because of differences in their environment -- everything from the womb, to the nutrition and culture in which they develop.

Managing the 'yuck' factor

At the end of any analysis, much of our negative reaction to cloning falls under the fuzzy category of the 'yuck factor'. Cloning is odd for the fundamental weirdness it represents -- giving birth to and raising your identical twin 30 years after you're born. But its yuckiness says less about cloning itself than about those who want to do it. There seem to be precious few motivations that are not either seriously misguided by prospective parents or seriously risky for the cloned child. Given our hesitation when it comes to restricting reproductive rights, how can we prevent wrong motivations without banning the entire technology?

The problem is that it is notoriously difficult to either assess or police motivation. So if we can't control people's actions we have to try and control access to the technology itself. The trick will be trying to do that in a way that respects parents' rights while protecting the children they create.

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.


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