Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Double or Nothing

By Robin K. Sterns, Ph.D.

Dolly is a sheep celebrity. She's the product not of mating between ram and ewe-and not even an artificial combination of egg and sperm-but of a cloning technology developed in 1997 by Scottish scientist Ian Wilmot.

Dolly started as a single cell removed from her mother's udder. The nucleus, containing the mother's DNA information, was then taken from that cell and implanted into an egg from which the DNA had been removed. The egg was cultured briefly and then transplanted into the womb of a surrogate mother ewe. Five months later, Dolly, a clone of her mother and with no biological father at all, was born.

Most observers were quick to predict what would come next: not just the cloning of other mammals, per se, but the cloning of human beings.

Because of the significant ethical and moral questions intertwined in this "scientific" achievement, Santa Clara Magazine spoke with SCU campus experts in biology, medicine, religious studies, patent law, engineering, technology, agriculture, and ethics. We framed our interviews around a basic tenet of the University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics: Complex problems have complex solutions. What does this development mean? Does it have positive potential? And what about the possibility of cloning human beings: Is it right or wrong, moral or immoral?

The Agribusinessman
Professor Andrew Starbird is director of SCU's Institute of Agribusiness, the largest agribusiness M.B.A. program in the country. He specializes in food-industry operations management and quality control.

"If you think of the science of agriculture as being divided into plant and animal science, this cloning technology won't offer much new potential to plant science," Dr. Starbird says. "It's been done for centuries. In fact we're now seeing the lack of genetic variability in plants as a disadvantage."

He believes genetic diversity has been lost through cloning-reproduction through cuttings-in grapes and apples. It has been lost, as well, through breeding in beans, corn, potatoes, and several vegetable crops.

"Farmers and breeders select for traits such as high yields, color, shape, flavor, and many other desirable characteristics," he explained. While obvious advantages to these strains exist, this can result in an increase of major loss from disease. "Genetic variability allows some individual plants to survive plagues, while genetic homogeneity makes all individuals equally susceptible to disease." At the same time, Dr. Starbird notes, "Cloning presents tremendous potential. We haven't reached the ability to regulate genetic traits as well in animals as we have in plants. We may have Holstein cows that produce large amounts of milk or hogs that produce leaner pork, but breeding for these characteristics still results in generational variability.

"Cloning animals," he continues, "would allow us to replicate desirable traits, to create, as one of my students called it, 'bioreactors' that produce whatever we want. This wouldn't be true just for traditional food products. But gene therapy could also be used to induce goats to produce insulin in their milk, for example, which would eventually prevent the need to create artificial insulin for human needs."

Genetic engineering is currently used in production agriculture to breed disease resistance in tomatoes and color in cotton, among other things. "The new cloning technology," he predicts, "is the next step in making genetic engineering commercially viable in animals." Dr. Starbird expects an eventual acceptance of genetically engineered animal products. "Most of the traits we've been looking for are one step removed from the consumer, like disease resistance, requiring less water, resistance to salinity, or to nematodes in the soil. Breeding for these traits doesn't alter the flavor or texture of the product and is not directly evident from the consumer's point of view, except the consumer will enjoy a lower price."

The Health-care Ethicist
Margaret McLean reflects on the subject of cloning from her position as director of health care ethics at SCU's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Having spent ten years on scientific research, including more than two years on reproductive physiology, she holds doctorates in both clinical pathology and ethics and is an adjunct lecturer in religious studies.

"I'm unusual. I've traveled in both arenas," she says, referring to the fact that she regards cloning technology from two perspectives, the scientific and the ethical. In fact Dr. McLean decided to leave her research science career specifically to look at the topic from an ethical standpoint. She does not ask, "How does this work?" but "Why should we do it?"

Dr. McLean asserts that, on complex ethical issues, even a group of experts needs to develop a dialogue. But she acknowledges this process takes time. For example, she belongs to a group of scientists, theologians, ethicists, and philosophers concerned with genetic technology. "It took a year for us to find a common ground," she recalls. "Then we got a good discussion going."

Part of the problem, she believes, is that the public lacks a solid knowledge base. "We are so poor at science education in this country that we, as a society, are unable to have a reasonable discussion on any scientific topic." She describes the ethics of genetics as a major issue. "But," she continues, "it's hard to ask, 'Should we do this?' when we don't thoroughly understand the process. Through public policy and the media, we are asking the public to comment on and criticize something they don't fully understand."

She acknowledges that consideration of the implications of research may not be first on a scientist's mind. "Scientists walk a fine ethical edge. They are self-conscious and research-conscious." Dr. McLean suggests that "science can run amok as can our judgments, but I don't see a valueless approach, an ego-centered approach." She cautions that a bigger concern is if and when the issue becomes market-driven. "There's a danger of commodifying things that shouldn't be commodified."

At the same time, scientists as a group are recognizing the need to think about the ethics of their research. She uses the U.S. Human Genome Project as an example. An internationally coordinated effort, it began in 1990 to identify, map, and study human DNA. About 5 percent of the $3 billion committed by the U.S. is earmarked for the ethical implications of the technology. Dr. McLean says this is "the first time that's ever been done. We've made a commitment not just to do the science but to think about the science. We do need public conversations about what we value."

Asked if cloning technology, in general, should be banned, Dr. McLean replies she wouldn't "put a stop light on the technology but a flashing yellow. We don't lose anything by taking our time. We lose a lot by running pell-mell down either path. I don't see a scientific or medical need to go forward immediately."

But Dr. McLean does see a need "to think critically about the limits of our medical and moral imaginations and about the application of this technology to human beings. There are important questions about human relationality, intent, and responsibility crying to be addressed. Concern for injustice and marginalization crosses our moral radar screen.

"The question is not whether we ought to ban or applaud cloning," she makes clear, "but why would we choose to go forward and whether our choices bode well or ill for present and future children and our relationships with them."

The Lawyer
But Donald Chisum, law professor and an expert on patent law, believes that asking scientists to slow down is unrealistic.

"There is the idea that scientists keep racing ahead," he reflects. "The truth is ethicists need to keep pace. The tendency is to say 'stop,' but stopping won't happen." Prestige in science, he points out, lies in being Þrst; scientists, he warns, won't take the opportunity to stop and reflect.

"Ethicists need to be more dynamic; otherwise scientists will whip them every time. They need to think quicker if they are going to analyze work projects. We need more schools of science, engineering, and ethics across the street from one another."

The Priest
The director of SCU's Graduate Program in Pastoral Ministries, James Reites, S.J., agrees ethicists have the obligation to speak up. A specialist in the history of Christian spirituality, he thinks cloning technology is fraught with ethical issues and problems. "For one thing," he says, "we'd be experimenting on human subjects as guinea pigs. It took some two hundred trials to achieve this cloned sheep. If you translate that experiment to human cloning, at least in the Catholic tradition, every fertilized embryo is in some way a human being. We must treat all of creation with respect."

Fr. Reites finds the process "troublingÑusing human beings as a means to an end. I'm wondering whether we can find a morally justifiable reason for this kind of experimentation."

Assuming that cloning humans does occur, he foresees an additional dilemma. "We're then faced with how to treat that cloned person. In my opinion, a clone is no different from one "born normally." That person would be a human being, physically and spiritually. There's so much more to a person than genetics: environment, relationships with parents, friends, siblings, and society."

Fr. Reites anticipates a role in the debate for SCU. "I asked myself how the institutions that train scientists would also train them to consider the ethical ramiÞcations of their work. It should be our goal to do that here at Santa Clara. We have an atmosphere where ethical and religious questions are asked and lives are not compartmentalized."

The Electrical Engineer
Electrical Engineering Professor Timothy Healy leads just such a discussion: a lunchtime group of SCU faculty, staff, and administrators from diverse Þelds that spent this year exchanging thoughts about ethics and technology. The group was planning to discuss the topic of unintended consequences of technology when Dr. Healy read news of the cloning breakthrough and brought it before the group.

Dr. Healy notes common misconceptions. He cautions that we must bear in mind that "all you get in a clone is the same gene set. People are a product of both nature and nurture. It also takes time for people to get to a certain level."

A number of complex issues still must be considered. "If we go down the cloning road," he asks, "where will it lead? The answer is we don't know."

He compares cloning's implications to the Internet's. "One of the reasons technology has unanticipated consequences is that many things exhibit 'dynamics,' the property of changing their state spontaneously, independent of control by a central agent in charge of the system. The Internet is an extraordinarily dynamic system with no one in charge. There is no way to model the Internet system in a way that will predict its future and the future of the people and things impacted by it."

Dr. Healy refers to ideas put forward by Edward Tenner, author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Sometimes, he writes, we think technology will have a positive effect, but unforeseen problems develop despite our best efforts. Tenner uses the example of power door locks on cars, introduced as a way to increase safety, which they did. But they also led to tripling or quadrupling the number of people locked out of their cars and exposed drivers "to the very criminals they were supposed to avoid."

Rejection of negative consequences is possible. "The violence of television and the pornography of the Internet are not forced on us," Dr. Healy declares. "The contribution the automobile makes to a sedentary life can often be rejected. If we become a slave to our telephone, it is not the telephone that should accept the blame. Discipline," he reminds, "is still a virtue, for ourselves and for our children."

The Biologist
Assistant Professor Craig Stephens teaches molecular biology and biotechnology. "Dolly the sheep was a rare case," he observes, "that made as much of a splash in the scientific community as in the popular press.

"This scientific advance is really fundamental. It's causing the rethinking of the dogma of how cells and organisms develop." But just because the technology exists, allowing us to apply it to sheep, does not mean that same technology translates to other animals and humans. It probably will be at least ten years "until we'll be able to clone humans. That gives us time to decide if it's a good idea."

Dr. Stephens notes that scientist Wilmot has said that cloning should never be done in humans because cloned children would never have a normal life. "But the argument can be made," Dr. Stephens counters, "that the same was true of the first quintuplets, the first test-tube baby. Early examples lived in the media limelight. But ten years later, no one cares."

Various high-tech methods are available outside the natural conception process. "Cloning isn't that different," he says. "If cloning is unnatural, so are they."

Dr. Stephens offers the example of a parent, unable to have additional children, who has a dying child and wishes to pursue cloning. "Are you going to tell that parent cloning isn't a good idea for anyone? I'm not so sure about that. Ethical issues aren't that cut and dried."

He describes the issues involved as complex, evoking many perspectives. "Sometimes all that results from discussions is that people become more tolerant of each other. I don't think people necessarily have to be trained in specific fields to examine ethical questions. They just have to be intelligent people willing to think deeply about it. Their opinions should have some basis."

The issue reached Dr. Stephens's classroom in spring semester. There, nonbiology majors had spent the first half of the course on the biotechnology revolution covering the science-DNA, proteins, etc.-and the second half on its practical implications, in terms of cancer research, AIDS drugs, and the like. When cloning made headlines, he discussed it with the class and the SCU bioethics club. "Both groups had the same initial reaction: It's a terrible idea and something we shouldn't explore. But after we talked about some specific examples, they started to change their minds, thinking cloning would be okay sometimes."

Asked why people have reacted so strongly to news of cloning and its potential implications, Dr. Stephens blames Hollywood. "People's knee-jerk reaction to cloning comes from science-fiction movies like The Boys From Brazil." Classic films picture "a dysfunctional future where people are cloned and put in cubicles or assembly lines, treated as machines or slaves. The word 'clone,'" he says, "has become synonymous to 'robot' or 'automaton.'

"In terms of the total number of babies born, only an inÞnitesimal fraction are born through high-tech scientific means. But those few make a huge, positive difference in their parents' lives. The reality is," he concludes, "that if it costs $50,000 to produce a clone, that child may be treated much better than, say, the product of a perfectly 'natural' one-night stand."

The Ethicist/Theologian
But Professor William Spohn, ethicist and theologian, worries about approaching this question on a case-by-case basis.

He labels many public-policy issues as "deceptive when looked at as individual choice only. The issue is not only the morality of a scientific advance. It's important to ask, 'What does this do to larger attitudes and practices?'"

Dr. Spohn believes that cloning children would alter our view of what children are. "Children are the ones already being punished by welfare reform. No-fault divorce is a pretty good idea for adults, but why didn't anyone think of the children?"

He says the same thing is true of cloning humans. "What would it do to our attitudes? Are children to become manufactured?"

Dr. Spohn cites Leon Kass, a physician and philosopher who teaches medical ethics at the University of Chicago and who says children are both an awesome gift and a great responsibility. Would we feel the same way about them if they were products? We can send products back. Parents are already 'taking back' adopted children who don't measure up. Some surrogate-mother contracts specify that the child must be healthy or the deal is off. The cloning issue is not about the individual couple who can't conceive; it's about institutionalized conception as a practice.

"The motto of Planned Parenthood is that every child should be a wanted child," says Dr. Spohn. "But 55 percent of pregnancies are unplanned. Does that mean that they (the children) are 'unwanted?' What usually happens is that unplanned pregnancies are accepted; people adjust their lives and welcome the baby."

Dr. Spohn views conception in our culture as voluntary but questions whether pregnancy should also be seen as voluntary. "Amniocentesis allows parents to determine what children they don't want. Cloning would allow [them] to decide what [they] do want.

"The 'giftedness' of a child comes from its mystery. 'Will she be right- or left-handed?' we ask. A cloned child could never surprise; it could only fail to measure up."

The Political Philosopher
Michael Meyer agrees. The professor of political philosophy and medical ethics says, "It would be great if the result of this new technology was that people took a look at how children are used by their parents and all adults, who have made products out of them, to live out their wishes and dreams.

"[Cloning is] one more tool in the toolbox," he advises, "for people who have bad agendas. The problem [lies] with the use it may be put to: not letting people lead individual lives." He calls eugenics, the desire to create a master race, "another nasty sidelight."

"But the actual practice of cloning," Dr. Meyer says, "doesn't have any new problems. The thing is, we might be tempted to control children's lives even more than we're doing already."

Dr. Meyer believes that in the latter part of the twentieth century we have become captivated by technology. "We've been looking for technological fixes or technological worst-case scenarios. Our capabilities have outstripped our thinking about them. . . . [Reproductive technologies] are famously not thought-out yet."

Will people be cloned? "Absolutely," Dr. Meyer replies. "And then the question will be, 'How will they be treated?' The answer is, 'The same as you and me.' They'll have the same status as any human."

Looking to the future, he says, "There's the illusion that you can control this stuff. You can't. Technology marches on. We should Þgure out how to make the most of it. People can be cloned in ways that aren't ethically troubling.

"The point of sexual reproduction," Dr. Meyer observes, "is to produce change, not identical copies. What we think good parenting requires-loving children unconditionally, not controlling them-is at risk with cloning. Good parents recognize that genetics don't control our lives. The mystery of who we are involves how we move through our changing world. Cloning will never change that."

Interestingly, nearly everyone interviewed for this article volunteered that ethical issues of much greater urgency exist.

Dr. McLean is more concerned about other genetic capabilities. "We can now, through DNA testing, tell people that they have a particular gene but [cannot describe] what that means. We can tell you that you have, say, a gene that shows a tendency toward breast cancer. We can give you the percentages of people who get it. But we cannot answer the questions, 'Will I get it? Can you help me?'"

She adds that all the interest about cloning "should be played against the lack of universal health care in this country. Cloning is slick and seductive. Talking about universal health care is not. It's a question of how to allocate our resources: We betray ourselves by giving so much attention to cloning."

Dr. Meyer says that in a world where children are dying of starvation or being forced into work, "Rather than worry about science-fiction implications of cloning, we should just worry about how children are abused now."

He points to a recent case in which parents gave birth to a child, hoping she'd be a bone-marrow donor for an existing child. "The bottom line is that society can't use people as instruments or tools. Otherwise we take a step toward Hitler." But he anticipates that so few people will be cloned that "worrying about their well-being while turning a blind eye to children all over the world who live monstrous lives is an ethical blind spot.

"People should look to their own communities," he concludes, "and do something good for a kid."

Dr. Healy's attention is not focused on technology issues. "There are things about human beings I think are unfortunate. Stanford economist Kenneth Arrow believes that 'most individuals underestimate the uncertainty of the world.' The result is that we believe too easily in the clarity of our own interpretation. Arrow calls for greater humility in the face of uncertainty and finds in the matter a moral obligation, as well, to seek alternative views and look for the best argument against the position we are holding."

Dr. Healy is concerned about people who think they have the answer to life-"that they have the truth. It's a fallacy of human character. I believe life is very complex, more so than we admit. Our short-term and long-term values are often different, often contradictory." Ours is a moral obligation, he says, "to take our positions tentatively, with humility in the light of our ignorance."

Fr. Reites sees the debate over cloning as an example of a larger problem facing people today. "It's harder to be a good person now. There's a lot more that you have to know and consider. We are responsible not just to our village but to our world.

"So many problems," he continues, "are intractable. It's tempting to think that we can nip new ideas in the bud before they get that way, too. The Church can help people with their vision of what it is to be a person, with the responsibility to live and act as beings made in the image of God, with everything that connects the past and the future. We tend to forget that," Fr. Reites concludes, "when we look just at individual cases."

Robin K. Sterns, Ph.D., is the former managing editor of SCU's University Communications Office.

Dr. Healy and his discussion group have identified several questions on cloning's implications they feel should be debated by anyone interested in thinking through the problem.

  • Will human cloning change what it means to be human?

  • What good might come from the development of cloning?

  • Should we halt research on cloning animals because it might lead to human cloning?

  • If the government takes no action to control cloning, could that decision be worse than a decision to take some specific action?

  • Is it possible to control cloning effectively?

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