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Cloned Baby?: Ethics

Aired December 27, 2002 - 10:06   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Now, let's view this story not through science, but perhaps through sometimes a vague prism of ethics.
Alta Charo is an associate dean of the University of Wisconsin Law School, and she also teaches bioethics at the university's medical school.

Good to see you.


WHITFIELD: Well, is this good science as Brigitte Boisselier claims it is?

CHARO: Nobody knows what it is, except for medical grandstanding. If this is false, it's one of the great hoaxes on the public and the media. If it happens to be true, which I sincerely doubt but like others, I'll wait for proof, it was an irresponsible experiment on humans and children prior to having any sound basis in animal work. And finally, it's a political and public relations catastrophe, because it will continue the confusion in the mind of the public between irresponsible reproductive applications of this technique and responsible, already regulated applications for the cure of disease, applications that do not involve making babies, but also go by the name of cloning.

WHITFIELD: It's irresponsible in your view, particularly because the verification or lack thereof may come later; the announcement came first.

CHARO: Well, that's irresponsible journalism on her part. I'll leave that to you to evaluate. No, I call it irresponsible medicine, because it is a truism in medicine that you do not begin working with humans until you have a solid basis in laboratory and animal science. The animal science reveals that success rates are very low and are accompanied by a variety of problems for the offspring that do survive. Even calves that appear to be healthy at birth have shown problems with heart and lung and kidney and liver, so that their life spans are shortened or they're seriously ill during their life spans. This is not something you foist upon a child.

WHITFIELD: All right, Alto, don't go anywhere just yet. You've got the medical point of view.

We want to also get the science point of view, and for that we go to Bill Nye, the Science Guy. He is in Seattle. How you doing there, Bill?

BILL NYE, SCIENCE GUY: I'm great. Good morning. This is potentially an historic day, but it might not be.

WHITFIELD: Are you happy about this being a potentially historic day? Or do you think this is good science in the making?

NYE: Good science? Well, I'll tell you what. It is quite reasonable to me that in five years, since Dolly was cloned, the sheep, people have gotten a lot better at it. And it is quite reasonable to me that some organization with enough money could find physicians or technicians who would be willing to try somatic cell nuclear transfer, taking the nucleus out of an ovum, out of a woman's egg, and putting in DNA from another human cell. It's reasonable that a rich organization can find somebody willing to do that.

But I will always argue -- I'm pretty sure I'll always, I will argue that it's inherently a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First of all, as was just pointed out by the dean, we have a lot of technological problems when you try to clone farm animals. A lot of times, these animals have these terrible health problems that we don't really know yet where they come from, where the problems come from.

WHITFIELD: And some of those problems revealed much later...

NYE: Well, apparently, yes.

WHITFIELD: ... and not necessarily immediately?

NYE: Yes, right, yes. And so, I think -- as an aside, I think it has to do with the way we clone. That we're a little bit, as remarkable as it all is, we're still a little bit clumsy with it. And you know, some day I can imagine figuring it out, because farm animals -- I mean, we have been genetically manipulating farm animals since Ogg (ph), you know, since Oggette (ph), since the last ice age or whatever the heck.

But that aside, I think cloning humans is inherently a bad idea for sort of, if I may, evolutionary biological reasons. And that is that if you were to -- if you cloned yourself, if this were successful, this kid, this baby, would not be the combination of two people's genes. And so, this kid would be inherently falling one genetic step behind, if you will, everybody else in kindergarten. Everybody else would be the result of a mixture of genes. A clone would be the result of a single set of genes. And I think it would catch up with you.

You know, -- by the way, cousins can marry to a limited extent. You know, in small countries or island populations...


NYE: ... people get away with it. You know, it's OK genetically.


NYE: But if you start cloning clones of clones, you're pretty soon, you're going to have humans that are genetically too far behind, and the place where it will catch up with you...


NYE: ... is in germs.

WHITFIELD: All, Bill. Alta, let me bring you back into this.

NYE: Oh, yes, sorry. I'm wandering, I'm wandering.

WHITFIELD: That's OK, that's OK. We're appreciating it.

NYE: No, there's a couple of things...

WHITFIELD: If this is illegal...

NYE: A couple of things I think we've got to cover.

WHITFIELD: ... reproductive cloning is illegal in many countries. And in the U.S., well, it's not written apparently on the books. It is regulated by the FDA. We don't know much...


CHARO: ... in fact, you'll notice...

WHITFIELD: We don't know much about where this actually took place yet, because this is something that the chemist did not reveal. What concerns you about where this activity is taking place, and who might be policing it, if anyone?

CHARO: Well, first, I think it's worth noting that Dr. Boisselier originally planned to try this kind of stunt in the United States. The FDA, asserting jurisdiction over cell-based therapies, including cloning and reproductive technologies, sent her a letter and said you may not do this in the United States. And she immediately moved her operation offshore. I think it demonstrates the power of the FDA's efforts here.

There have been some people who have speculated that the FDA's jurisdiction can be challenged in the courts and made ineffective. Bit you'll notice she didn't try to do that. She simply left the country.

So, for the moment, we do have some protection at the federal level, and there are a handful of states, fewer than half a dozen, that have also banned this by statute within their state borders -- California and Michigan being examples. In the rest of the United States, there is no state law, but the federal government does have a role through the FDA.

And medical malpractice law, which is tort law, is also appropriate here since I think it would be easy for any state medical society to conclude that this falls below the standard of responsible medicine, and therefore renders the physicians and even potentially the parents liable for any problems with the children. I don't think we're going to see this tried in the United States anytime soon.

WHITFIELD: All right, this debate is just beginning, and I want to thank you, Alta Charo and Bill Nye, the Science Guy, thanks to both of you for joining us.


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