On Wednesday afternoon, Democratic senators Edward Kennedy, Dianne Feinstein and Tom Harkin are scheduled to join Republican senators Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter in Washington, in announcing legislation that both opposes and promotes the evolution of cloning technology. That seeming contradiction of pro and con embodies the farrago of scientific and legislative opinions making cloning among the hottest of hot-button topics on Capitol Hill.
THE SENATORS, to be joined by Nobel laureate David Baltimore, actor Kevin Kline and a former police officer who suffered a severe spinal-cord injury, will announce legislation to make the cloning of a human being a crime, while allowing medical research to go on.
The legislation would make reproductive cloning in humans a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and would establish a fine of $1 million, or three times the profits made, for anyone who clones or tries to clone a human being. Theirs will be the latest legislation to take a stand in an already rancorous debate.
The spark of electricity required to start the cloning process has a counterpart in public opinion. The jolt generated by recent unconfirmed announcements of the birth of human clones — one supposedly alive and well and living in Israel — has led to spirited debate among scientists and thinkers, and a furious pan-congressional effort to circumscribe its scope, or prevent it from happening altogether.
BRACING FOR THE REAL THING
Cloning and other genetic manipulation have been the stuff of the popular imagination for decades. David Rorvik’s 1978 novel “In His Image: The Cloning of a Man” led to Senate hearings debating a ban on the procedure. Ira Levin’s popular novel “The Boys From Brazil,” offered the chilling premise of an elderly Nazi seeking to create scores of clones of Adolf Hitler. Such films as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), “Sleeper” (1973), “Multiplicity” (1996), “Gattaca” (1997) and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2000) have speculated on the ways in which cloning and other in-our-image engineering would affect society.
The speculators in future futures contacted by MSNBC.com are bracing for the real-life impact of cloning, their expectations ranging from violent social upheaval and a reevaluation of our esthetic sensibilities to the bright dawn of tailored genes and lifespans of 100 years or longer.
REPRODUCTIVE VS. THERAPEUTIC
The cloning controversy itself is a two-sided one: Reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning form the two halves of the debate. The more controversial, reproductive cloning, involves removing the nucleus of an egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus of a cell from an adult. The reconstructed egg is then stimulated, usually with an electrical charge, to begin dividing. If that works, the cell will divide several times to produce a blastocyst, a pre-implantation embryo ready for further development into a fetus, inside the womb.
Scientists and lawmakers, some conjuring nightmare scenarios of body-part merchants, oppose reproductive cloning on the grounds that the science into the technique is incomplete, and that without more definitive knowledge of the effects, women would be subjected to needless dangers, and any offspring from the process would likely experience untold health problems.
The other side of cloning, less often the stuff of breathless sensationalism, is therapeutic cloning, the chameleon phenomenon in which a patient’s somatic cells, or body cells, are combined with an egg cell that has its DNA removed. As a result the body cell’s DNA is reprogrammed back to an embryonic state, and cells identical to those of the patient, called stem cells, are produced.
These unspecialized cells can develop into cells with specialized purposes as needed by the patient. Supporters of therapeutic cloning consider the technique a potential boon to science, and possibly a way to treat a spectrum of diseases, from diabetes to Parkinson’s disease, cancer to spinal-cord injuries.
BATTLE LINES DRAWN
For detractors of cloning, the distinctions between the two are small — some have said nonexistent. In September 2000, the European Parliament submitted a motion for a resolution condemning the “linguistic sleight of hand” it said was used to distinguish one from another. ”[T]here is no difference between cloning for therapeutic purposes and cloning for the purposes of reproduction,” the parliament said.
The National Right to Life Committee decried “human embryo farms” in urging an immediate ban, the Associated Press reported late last year.
And cloning opponents among lawmakers in the United States have gone so far as to propose an outright ban on all cloning practices, even on basic cloning research. It’s the distinctions between cloning techniques, and disagreement on any pre-emptive strategy to undercut fundamental research, a cornerstone of science, that’s fueling much of the debate raging throughout the world, and in Washington.
FROM CONDEMNED TO COMMONPLACE
Cloning is the latest genetic technology to come before a public of changing mind; Ray Kurzweil, inventor and author of “The Age of Spiritual Machines,” a 2000 book speculating on the interface of computers and human intelligence, notes that the passionate antipathy that accompanied other once-cutting-edge procedures, from in-vitro fertilization to surrogate motherhood, has largely given way to a sense that such things are commonplace.
“All the reproductive technologies we have — artificial insemination, test-tube babies — were once considered radical,” said Kurzweil, the founder, chairman and CEO of Kurzweil Technologies, a company specializing in artificial-intelligence and computer science systems. “A lot of technology when we first hear about it, we can’t get used to it.”
“Whether Clonaid has done what they claim or not, it’s clear that human cloning is going to happen soon,” Kurzweil said, referring to the organization that claimed in December to have husbanded the first reproductive clone. “The fact that people didn’t dismiss Clonaid’s claim out of hand says that people realize this is feasible.”
Kurzweil said that while human cloning “is unethical at this time, on the grounds that the technology isn’t ready,” eventually, society “will find it’s no big deal.”
NOT A FORGONE CONCLUSION
But others feel that, portentous cultist claims aside, human cloning may not be the scientific slam-dunk many people think it is. “By no means,” said Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “The problems encountered in many animal species with cloning make it uncertain whether human cloning will ever work,” he said. “In nearly all animal species the failure rate of cloning has been enormous. And no one has succeeded in cloning a dog or any type of primate. It’s as likely that human cloning will not work as that it will.”
It’s anybody’s educated guess as to when the technology will emerge to make cloning less genetically problematic. Months? Years? Decades?
“No one knows,” Caplan said. “The reasons why cloning fails so often are not well understood, but if the failure is intrinsic to using old DNA in new eggs, adult-cell cloning may never improve in terms of risks.”
An inevitable concern of those opposed to human cloning — or even those on the fence about such technology — is the readiness of society to make such a vast existential leap.
SHOULD WE JUST BECAUSE WE CAN?
For them, successful human cloning may be an example of our technology moving faster than ethical considerations of what that technology can do. “The question is this: simply because we can do something, does that mean we should?” asked Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), co-sponsor of an anti-cloning bill now in Congress, in a Jan. 9 interview with FoxNews.com.
“Ethics and the law have not fallen behind science,” Caplan said. “Everyone agrees that cloning for human reproduction is not safe and should not be allowed at least until the animal data improves. But there’s no agreement on whether to permit cloning for research.
“There’s no ethics lag,” Caplan said. “People have been arguing about what to do about cloning for years; they simply don’t agree. Are we ready for research cloning? Well, many countries — China, India, Singapore, the United Kingdom and Israel — apparently are. They’re moving ahead with research.
“There is no ban yet in the United States, but two states, California and New Jersey, have passed laws allowing research cloning,” Caplan said. “I think some consensus is beginning to emerge on this issue.”
While there may be a growing international consensus, American scientists face growing opposition in Washington, where several lawmakers are working to institute a ban on the practice, advancing anti-cloning bills in an effort striking in its reach beyond the customary division of party lines.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D.La.) are co-sponsors of the Brownback-Landrieu Human Cloning Prohibition Act, first introduced in February 2002.
The bill would make it a crime “to perform or ... to participate in an attempt to perform human cloning,” punishable by either a fine or a sentence of up to 10 years in prison — a penatly similar to the proposed Kennedy-Specter legislation.
The Brownback-Landrieu measure was frustrated last year on procedural technicalities by Sen. Tom Daschle, then Senate Majority Leader. Brownback decided to postpone its re-introduction this year, even as he voiced his opposition to cloning on Jan. 29 at a Senate subcommittee hearing, insisting on a ban against “all forms of cloning, including research cloning.”
FILLING THE GAPS
But others are filling the breach at every level. When Congress convened on Jan. 8, Democrat Stupak and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), introduced the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003.
Calling embryo cloning a “dangerous assault on human dignity,” Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, expressed the misgivings of some scientists at the Jan. 29 Senate hearing.
“You don’t have to think the 5-day-old embryo is a human to be discomfited by the idea” of experimenting on them, said Kass, a University of Chicago ethicist.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), calling cloning “an area desperately in need of regulation” in a Feb. 2 interview with USA Today, is allied with Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) in a measure to restrict or outlaw the technique.
SB 156, an anti-cloning bill, was introduced on Jan. 29 in the Texas Senate and is now under review.
And in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 28, President Bush made his position clear: ”[B]ecause no human life should be started or ended as the object of an experiment, I ask you to set a high standard for humanity, and pass a law against all human cloning.”
KNOWING THE FUTURE
Unlike others in the debate, Caplan has no problems with the ethical dimensions of cloning, but cautions that reproductive human cloning, if it’s ever successful to start with, would have mental and emotional repercussions that aren’t part of the current debate.
“I don’t find the prospect very troubling ethically,” said Caplan, who is also a columnist for the MSNBC.com Health section. “If it ever could be done safely, then I think it’ll most closely resemble in-vitro fertlization. It would be an interesting new way to reproduce, but it’s one that, due to its cost and the availability of easier and more fun ways to make babies — sex — almost no one will choose to use.”
“A small number of human clones would have no more impact on society than a small number of identical twins now does,” he said. “The real ethical issue is, would someone be happy being a clone? They’ll know a lot about their genetic future, and that might be burdensome psychologically or emotionally,” said Caplan, voicing a variation on the dilemma explored in Philip K. Dick’s classic science-fiction novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and in the ensuing 1982 film “Blade Runner.”
“They’ll bear the emotional burden of being created in someone else’s image,” he said. “They’ll know much about their appearance and the risk of genetic disease, which could be difficult to live with. If human cloning does appear, we’ll have to study cloned children closely to see whether they are burdened by that kind of knowledge. Such study should be mandatory for centers doing cloning — not voluntary.”
‘STRUGGLE IN THE STREETS’
Of those surveyed for their sense of what things may come, Alvin Toffler had a view that was perhaps the most dystopian. Toffler, whose celebrated books “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave” (co-written with his wife Heidi Toffler) predicted a range of developments in life, technology and culture, was somewhat downbeat about ways in which human clones would be assimilated into the human family — if ever.
“I anticipate a period of intensifying period of religious and moral struggle in the streets,” said Toffler, chairman of Toffler Associates, a strategic advisory firm formed by the Tofflers. “If some people in the United States are prepared to throw bombs in abortion clinics, I believe we’ll find lots of people prepared to do worst damage to prevent human cloning.”
Toffler’s dire forecast contemplated changes society would face “as part of a package of value conflicts that we will face not just from cloning but from other biological advances and birth technologies that emerge as part of a transition to a no-longer industrial society.”
‘AN AMERICAN SCENARIO’
“This is essentially an American scenario — with perhaps, ironically, some parallel protests in the Muslim world,” Toffler said.
“I see that while, we Americans struggle with our religions and individual consciences, other cultures in other countries are much less exercised by these issues — which is why China wants to become, in the words of Wired magazine, ‘the first cloning superpower’.
“All of this is everywhere accompanied by pledges not to clone humans, which I take with a grain of salt,” Toffler said. “We will see human clones. I don’t want to make a forecast about cloning. I thought and wrote years ago that it would have happened by 1985, and it didn’t until roughly now. But there will be so much commercial advantage in cloning and its offshoots, it will be extremely difficult to prevent.”
A THING OF BEAUTY
Other cloning-related social changes Toffler envisions concern the purely esthetic. He harbors the suspicion that cosmetic surgery and botox injections may be the tip of the iceberg.
“As a result of the biological revolution in general, we’ll see a redefinition of what it means to be human,” Toffler said. “We’ll see strange new body forms, new esthetics and ideas of beauty. Clearly there’ll be people who’ll try to use the new technologies for self-enhancements.”
For Dr. Gregory Stock, the advent of human cloning in its various forms will go a long way to resolve the racial differences existing today. Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at UCLA’s School of Public Health, lamented those schisms in the modern world — “we’re 99 percent the same, but we really care about that different 1 percent” — but noted the potential for cloning to change the boundaries of the divide.
“Right now we focus on skin color, but as we unravel our genetics, the knowledge will really break down simplistic group perceptions,” said Stock, the author of “Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future” (2002), a book that imagines human lifespans up to 150 years, and gene modules bestowing intelligence and strength.
“There’ll be such a variety of attributes,” he said. “There will be all sorts of ways to draw boundaries between groups, it’ll be difficult to maintain the concept that we belong solely to any single ethnic or racial group.”
Stock is confident that human cloning will come to pass, sooner rather than later. “It will occur,” he said. “I would be surprised if it hasn’t happened within five to 10 years. It will occur outside the major medical establishments. By that time, it will have been announced dozens of times and when it does occur, it will probably be more dangerous than most physicians would find acceptable.”
WOULD SUPERMAN GO TO JAIL?
Therapeutic cloning re-emerged recently after statements from the actor Christopher Reeve supporting research into therapeutic cloning.
Reeve, the star of the “Superman” films who was paralyzed in 1995 when thrown from a horse, said human trials of therapeutic cloning efforts “are even under way as we speak,” work that could help repair spinal injuries like his own, Reuters reported Jan. 24.
By way of reinforcing his contention of the need for therapeutic cloning, Stock offered a startling hypothetical of Reeve’s future in America if the procedure were outlawed: “If Christopher Reeve got embryonic stem-cell therapy and returned to the United States, he could be put in jail for 10 years under the provisions of the Brownback bill .. I’d like to see that happen.”
“The United States can ban therapeutic cloning,” he said, “but it’ll have no impact other than to further reduce the United States’ effort in that area, and insure that the United States has nothing to say about what is developed or how. I’d predict that if there is anything of value coming out of the technology, the United States will be playing catch-up ball.”
Perhaps underscoring his point is the Australian parliament’s December decision to approve medical research on 70,000 spare human embryos created for in-vitro fertilization.
Stanford University returned to the debate over cloning with a Dec. 10 announcement of plans to experiment with cell nuclear-transfer technology, the Associated Press reported. “Our avowed goal is to advance science,” said Stanford medical professor Dr. Irving Weissman, who will be the project director. “For any group to stay out of the action and wait for someone else to do it because of political reasons is wrong,” Weissman told the AP.
Such efforts fly in the face of the growing conservative chorus against the study and performance of cloning, a gathering chorus of opposition that Stock, with other scientists, calls “an attempt to criminalize basic biomedical research.”
And Stock expressed confidence that, given the historically relentless nature of scientific inquiry and discovery, an outright ban on all forms of cloning isn’t even possible — and from the standpoint of American leadership, not advisable.
Such proposed bans, Stock said, are “an example of the continuing intrusion of political oversight — the micro-management of basic research — which to me is craziness. It’s one thing to regulate and have restrictions on clinical applications of actual reproductive cloning, but to try and ban the basic research is very contrary to our traditions of open inquiry.
“To claim that legislation that so elevates the status of a pinprick of cells that it blocks research to cure real disease afflicting real people and destroying real lives — to call that respect for human life and dignity is absurd. It’s wrong.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.