What's all the fuss about?

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

Mary Shelley's invention of a scientist creating and meddling with human life has become the most potent symbol of modern science. But she would surely be shocked by the way her brilliant fantasy has become so distorted. The image of Frankenstein has been turned by the media into genetic pornography whose aim is to titillate excite and frighten.

Ironically, the real clone of sheep has been the media, blindly and unthinkingly following each other. The moral masturbators came out in force telling us of the horrors of cloning. Jeremy Rifkin in the USA has demanded a worldwide ban and suggested that cloning should carry a penalty "on a par with rape, child abuse and murder." The normally sober journal Nature, which published the original scientific paper, has declared it shaming that the ethical issues have not been fully examined. But what horrors? What ethical issues? In all the righteous indignation I have not found a single new relevant ethical issue.

Cloning might seem distasteful, but the "yuck" factor is not a reliable basis for making judgements. There may be no genetic relation between a mother and a cloned child, but that is true of adoption. Identical twins, who are a clone, are not uncommon, and this upsets no one. What exactly is it that so upsets people? If you could clone Richard Dawkins, who seems to quite like the idea, how terrible would that be? Genes are important, but so is the environment in which a child is raised, and since the upbringing of the Dawkins clone would be different, he might even have a religious disposition - clones could make very rebellious children. The feelings that a cloned child might have about its individuality must be taken into account. This is an issue common to several other types of assisted reproduction. But this line of thinking is to collude with silly fantasies, for everyone seems to have forgotten that cloning requires mothers. And which mother would be so unwise as to try for a child by this illegal, difficult, expensive and risky procedure. It took hundreds of eggs to produce Dolly the sheep. And there is also a high risk of abnormalities.

Most important is how the child will be cared for. Given the terrible things that humans are reported to do each other, cloning should take a low priority in our list of anxieties. Or perhaps it is a way of displacing our real problems with unreal ones.

Contrast all this with a very different approach to human genetics. At Manchester Airport, a unique shop has just been opened where the "goods" are free. This is the lovechild of a geneticist, Dr Maurice Super, and a moral philosopher, Professor Ruth Chadwick, and nurtured by the EC. It is a gene shop where shoppers will be able to pick up advice and information on human genetics that might affect their lives. Most people do not know where to go when they have concerns about conditions that might have a genetic basis. So the aim of the shop is to give accurate information. It is a most imaginative contribution to the public understanding of science.

It could well be that knowing more about genetics will make people hostile to its applications. So be it, for that is the essence of an open society. Indeed there are those with genetic diseases, who understand genetics, that are hostile to screening because they see it as a negative comment on their identity. But those who have shopped at the gene shop will have a better chance of their views being based on understanding rather than science fiction.

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