Film / Book Reviews, Touch

Cloning: The ethical issues, dangers and risks

The Second Creation: Dolly and the Age of Biological Control
Authors: Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell and Colin Tudge

LIFE sciences is looming in importance for the future of Singapore. Unfortunately, much of it is in terms of economic development and viewed as an economic activity to replace industries in the production of goods. Religious people are raising ethical questions about the goals and processes of such a form of technology.

The cloning of Dolly marks the turning point in genetic technology and has significant consequences for humankind. The two scientists of Roslin Institute who are the “parents” of Dolly have written the book “The Second Creation” in collaboration with science writer Colin Tudge. Ian Wilmut , the embryologist, and Keith Campbell, the microbiologist, are the leaders of the team who made the technological breakthrough to clone a mammal from a cultured adult body cell in 1996.

Campbell and Wilmut regard “human cloning as a rather ugly diversion, superfluous as a medical procedure and repugnant in general”. They were not primarily interested in human cloning but cloning as a technique with many important possibilities for humankind. It is another useful reproductive technology.

It is estimated that one in eight couples suffer from infertility. Some techniques are old, and as early as in the late 18th century, artificial insemination was practised. The freezing and thawing of cells without killing them, known as cryopresentation, was developed in 1953. It is estimated that more than one million people have been conceived worldwide by artificial insemination.

The next technique is in-vitro fertilisation, which produces a “test-tube” baby. The first baby, Louise Joy Brown, was conceived not really in a test tube but in a petri dish and was born on July 25, 1978. Patrick Steptoe, an obstetrician, and Robert Edwards, a physiologist, who have experimented on mice, transferred this technology to humans. It is projected that by 2005 half a million babies may be born by IVF in the United States alone.

These techniques of reproduction require the egg, sperm and womb and they come from the parents or donors or surrogates. The sexual fusion of egg and sperm can come about naturally or artificially. This ensures that no two creatures are alike except in identical multiple births due to the division of the embryo in the womb. Even then identical twins cannot be exactly alike since other factors come into play in human development.

Cloning is the new stage and it is not the result of the fusion of egg and sperm. It is by the process of nuclear transfer. Cells from the embryo and foetuses were used to clone other animals. In the case of Dolly, the ewe donated the adult mammary cells which were introduced to eggs whose nuclei have been removed. Campbell and Wilmut constructed 277 embryos and only 13 went on to develop further and were transferred into 13 ewes. Only one solitary surrogate mother was able to produce a live lamb, and that was Dolly. The name was inspired by Dolly Parton stressing the mammary connection.

The common belief is that the clone is exactly identical with the parent who provided the nucleus that replaced the one in the egg. Even though identical twins share the same set of genes when the embryo splits into two and there are obvious similarities, there are striking differences. This is because during development the genes may change or mutate and are in constant interaction with the environment, first in the womb and then in the larger world. Over time they may be different genetically. The difference may be slight but obvious. That is the case of cloned animals which are not xeroxed copies of the original.

At present, there are dangers in cloning. Foetuses produced by cell transfer are 10 times more likely to die in the uterus. Different deformities also occur and the life span is shortened. Cloned offspring are three times more likely to die soon after birth. There are still many unknowns in the cloning of human persons.

Genetic engineering using the technology brought about by cloning can change the nature of humanity itself. It transfers genes from one organism to another. Damaged tissues can technically be removed, manipulated and returned to the body. This does not raise an ethical issue. The issue arises when genes are being altered, added or subtracted which affect succeeding generations. We are therefore in a position to determine the very nature of persons.

The risk is because we do not fully know the character of the gene and the structure of the genome which covers all the genes in one organism. The theory is that we can identify the single gene relating to a certain disorder. But genes live and interact with the 80,000 genes and individually and corporately they affect the functions of the total organism. Genes may affect more than one characteristic and together with others affect other characteristics.

Even though the reproductive process has developed significantly leading to the technological possibility of cloning human beings which Clonaid has recently claimed, the ethical issue is the kind of nature of the human being in the future and who determines it. It will fall into the hands of the rich and technologically powerful who will control genetic engineering.

There is the more serious question for religious people who believe that God is the Creator of life. Is there a place for God or has God been edged out or marginalised? Even though we are more conversant with the process of reproduction of new life there is yet the mystery of life. What is life is the fundamental question. Is it just an evolutionary process and by chance eggs are fertilised and cells are differentiated to form the living body? We can describe the process and the techniques of directing certain changes to the human organism, but how did they come about and act the way they do? Who is responsible?
The faithful will continue to affirm the work of God.

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.