Underlying Issues Important Part of Cloning Debate*

By Mark A. Rothstein

As a dog lover and a follower of developments in genetics, I was quite interested to learn of the $2.3 million gift to Texas A&M University scientists to attempt to create a clone of the pet dog of an anonymous, rich family. Although Missy, a much-loved collie-mix, is eleven years old and approaching the end of her life, creating a clone of Missy is unlikely to be a successful venture. Furthermore, the attempt to create a clone of a specific animal reinforces some basic misconceptions about cloning in the eyes of the public.

Outside of the show ring, a dog's appearance is a secondary consideration. As a pet, the qualities that make a dog a special companion are loyalty, affection, gentleness, playfulness, docility, and demeanor; in short, the dog's temperament or personality. Even if a clone of Missy were created, she would merely be a genetic copy of the original and not a copy of the totality of the dog. To illustrate this point, ask the parents of monozygotic (identical) human twins whether their twins, born at the same time and raised in the same environment, have identical personalities. In many instances human twins differ dramatically in their personalities for reasons we do not understand. There is even less likelihood that Missy's clone would have Missy's disposition.

Cloning technology is in its infancy. Despite some well-publicized successes, scientists have yet to perfect the techniques of mammalian cloning. Texas A&M researchers hope to use the grant to further research generally. But the goals of the research and the expectations of the public must be based on science. Cloning will neither guarantee immortality for Missy nor necessarily produce another animal with such loving traits. When the focus shifts to possible human cloning, the issues are even more complicated.

Last year, after the announcement that somatic cell nuclear transfer technology (cloning) had produced a sheep named Dolly, President Clinton directed the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) to consider and report on the ethics of possible human cloning. The NBAC recommended establishing a moratorium on human research involving this technology until the significant safety concerns could be resolved. And, even assuming eventually it will be biologically safe to produce a human child in this way, a thoughtful and informed public debate would still be necessary to consider the numerous ethical, social, psychological, legal, evolutionary, and religious implications of replicating humans in such a manner.

This new announcement reminds us that, in scientific terms, we may be a small step away from a rich family giving a large grant to scientists to attempt cloning their child or themselves. In social terms, however, many observers believe that we are a long way from appreciating, let alone resolving, the difficult underlying issues. Missy may be helping with the science, but I'm afraid we're on our own in developing sound ethics and policy on human cloning.

* Originally published in the Houston Chronicle, September 1, 1998, page 17A.