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Cloning: a boon and bane

By Theodore Dalrymple

While stem-cell research is welcome, cloning for reproductive purposes would be a manifestation of our ever-increasing, and deeply unattractive, egotism.

A HUMAN embryo has been cloned in South Korea. All the alpha pluses in the land will at once anxiously call to mind Aldous Huxley's dystopia. The word cloning is now mentally inseparable from Huxley's novel, but in fact Huxley was not a simple genetic determinist. He realised that a clone of a human being was not necessarily identical with the human being from which it had been cloned. The production of his dystopia required not merely cloning on a mass scale, by the imaginary Bokanovsky process, so that clones were produced not individually but industrially, by the score and the hundred, but it required also utter uniformity of environment for the cloned beings to grow up in.

From the standpoint of an ageing conservative, it often appears as if a large measure of social homogeneity of the Brave New World type has already been produced in Britain without resort to genetic engineering. There seems to be considerable uniformity of taste, dress, opinion and character among the young that has nothing whatever to do with the vagaries of DNA.

A clone of you or me would not be me. It would be very different physically, for a start: it would most likely be considerably taller than you or me, would live longer than you or me, have better teeth than you or me, and undergo puberty two or three years earlier than you or me. A clone of Hitler would not be Hitler, at least in the sense of being the Reichsfuhrer. More probably, he would work in the Health Service Modernisation Agency or some such bureaucratic refuge for the beta-minuses.

Although the Huxleyan nightmare is unlikely ever to come to pass, therefore, cloning for reproductive purposes would nevertheless be wholly reprehensible. The reason for this is not that it would result directly in a horrible dystopia, but because it would be a manifestation of our ever-increasing, and deeply unattractive, egotism. What good reason could anyone ever have for wishing to clone him or herself? Only someone who looks in the mirror and thinks what the world needs is another me would contemplate it; and a world of such people would be almost as horrible in its own way as the world Huxley sketched. In fact, the South Koreans have cloned an embryo with quite other reasons in mind. They wish to do further stem-cell research, which (it is hoped) will one day allow us to grow human cells that can be artificially stimulated into becoming special tissues, for example, the islet cells of the pancreas that secrete insulin — to replace those damaged in a disease process. Because such cloned tissues will be genetically identical to those of the recipient, there will, in theory, be no problems with rejection, the bane of transplantation as it is currently practised.

The ethical objection to this, however, is that the embryo is a human being as soon as the ovum divided into more than one cell, that it then becomes "ensouled". However, for myself, I cannot truly consider an embryo a full member of the human race. I cannot mourn for its loss as for, say, the death of a six year-old child, nor can I feel the same outrage at its deliberately induced demise as for an old lady brutally done to death in her own home by a glue-sniffing youth.

There is, of course, the slippery slope argument, and it is certainly true that there have been many such slopes down which we have slipped, or joyously skied, in the past few decades. But unless we believe that we are not masters of our fate, that the Promethean bargain is completely uncontrollable, this is not a slope we need slip down, at least with proper regulation. (Of course, it is always possible that the technical difficulties in stem-cell research will prove insurmountable, and that the promised benefits will never be forthcoming, but that is another argument altogether.) A greater danger of oversold technical advance than the production of a horrible Huxleyan Brave New World is that it will decrease yet further our tolerance of suffering, and further erode a very necessary understanding of the inherent limitations of human life. For the best that technical advance ever does is to postpone physical suffering, and prolong our suffering-free existence. Those who have led such an existence are able (at least in my experience) to tolerate imperfect health less well than those to whom it has been an accompaniment all their lives.

No doubt this sounds a little as if I am arguing that suffering is good for the character, and in my heart I believe that it is indeed so. At the same time, however, I believe that any individual cause or case of suffering is best avoided. It is certainly possible, though by no means certain, that stem-cell research will one day alleviate or abolish some horrible causes of suffering, for example Parkinson's disease. I do not think anyone who has seen someone die of this condition would doubt for an instant that if it could be cured, it ought to be. If stem-cell research can do it, I welcome it. Therefore stem-cell research, made possible by cloning, ought to be allowed, but reproductive cloning ought not to be allowed.

(Theodore Dalrymple is a practising GP.)

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