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'The Island' peers into inevitable controversy of human cloning:
Fiction touches truth of stem cell debate 

By By Kerry Lynn Macintosh

The Orange County Register

 

COSTA MESA

 


The movie "The Island'' presents the story of a biotech company that has found a new way to get rich. For a fee, the company takes DNA from a client and uses it to create an adult clone who is a carbon copy. When a client gets sick, the company kills the clone and harvests spare body parts.

 

This is scientific nonsense. Like sexual reproduction, cloning starts with an embryo which must be gestated for nine months before it can be born -- as a baby, not an adult. Even if that embryo is created using the DNA of an existing person, the resulting clone can never be a copy. The baby will be gestated in a different womb, grow up in a different family and experience a different era from the DNA donor, leading to physical and psychological differences.

 

But despite these errors, "The Island'' is a good film that raises several interesting points about cloning and clones. At first, the biotech company tries to harvest organs from engineered blobs of flesh. When that doesn't work, the company makes adult clones that it doesn't expect to be human. The clones prove the company wrong. Every question they ask -- and every emotion they experience -- show that clones are people, too. This plot evokes the controversy over stem-cell research.

 

Biotech companies want to make medical treatments that match patient DNA. To do this, they must clone embryos and kill them for their stem cells. Across the nation, people are debating whether it is morally justifiable to exploit embryos this way. Some scientists argue that cloned embryos have a lesser moral status than others embryos, due to epigenetic flaws that could prevent them from developing into healthy human babies.

 

"The Island'' correctly refutes this reasoning, reminding the viewer that cloned life is human life. Moreover, if cloned embryos do have epigenetic flaws, it won't be safe to use medical treatments derived from them. Scientists are working hard to learn how to create cloned embryos that are healthy.

 

But such knowledge will make reproductive cloning possible. As in "The Island,'' we are likely to start out creating balls of cells, and end up creating human beings. So what's the solution? Must we outlaw all cloning? Some viewers might take that message from "The Island.'' But it's the wrong one. Research cloning is already a global industry. We can't stop it by clamping down on American biotech companies. We can't stop reproductive cloning, either. Once scientists learn to create healthy cloned embryos, infertile men and women, gay people and others will use cloning to have genetic offspring. If cloning is illegal here, prospective parents will travel or go underground to get the services they want.

 

Thus, "The Island'' is correct to posit a near future in which clones exist. The crucial question is: How will we treat them? In "The Island,'' the biotech company stamps clones on the wrist with a product number, and herds them into gas chambers when they cause trouble. Thus, the movie predicts that clones will be treated as less than human.

 

This is a striking allegory for what is already happening. Although no one has proposed branding clones with numbers (yet), recent legal developments have ensured that clones will be branded in another, equally damaging way. Laws against cloning are based upon, and reinforce, the false stereotype that clones are copies. If the laws really could prevent the birth of clones, that might not matter. But the laws cannot succeed.

 

Inevitably, many clones will be born in defiance of the laws, only to be immediately stigmatized as subhuman duplicates who are unworthy of existence. This will not only damage the hearts and minds of clones, but also undermine our society's commitment to egalitarianism. So, if you think cloning should be outlawed, go see "The Island.'' It just might change the way you feel about your fellow clone.

 

KERRY LYNN MACINTOSH is a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. She is the author of "Illegal Beings: Human Clones and the Law'' (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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