Natasha Walter: Scientific optimism is the problem, not the irrational fear of cloning

'The cloned child would have its own separate consciousness and its own separate development'
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The Independent Online

If the idea of cloning people makes you feel a teeny bit queasy, you're certainly not alone. It's not just the Pope who has called it "morally unacceptable" or George Bush who has pressed for a ban. Undoubtedly cloning taps into some visceral fears. Over 80 years ago, Sigmund Freud tried to uncover the reasons why the very idea of having a double seemed so horrid. It all really came down to the yuck factor, which is what he might have called his essay The Uncanny (Das Unheimliche) if he were writing today.

Even he couldn't explain the creepy sensation that was produced by the idea of meeting one's double, but he could describe it effectively. Although in children's stories it might seem a dream or a joke, "The double has become a thing of terror... it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death".

The scary idea of having a double is still used as the basis for some of the most memorable horror stories and fantasy tales. Why else would the hero of our times, Harry Potter, be so overwhelmed by a growing understanding that he is in some ways the double of his villain, Lord Voldemort? This device works so well for his creator, JK Rowling, because she is tapping into a fear that is still as powerful as it is unexplained.

Such fears give a frisson to the whole kerfuffle over the possibility of cloning a human being. And it's not just the fear of the double that haunts the cloning debate, but also the fear that Mary Shelley tapped 200 years ago, of hubristically calling up powers that would outrun human control. One British website that I looked at yesterday and has devoted space to the issue shows that all these fears are still alive and well. Severino Antinori, the new prophet of cloning, is there called a Frankenstein, an antichrist, and excoriated for playing God.

But these atavistic fears, compelling as they are, are hardly the most convincing basis for an argument against cloning. Because, if we lay aside the science fiction view, we can be rational and see that, despite its method of production, the cloned child would be as separate from its parent as any other child. It would have its own separate consciousness and its own separate development. In no way would it be its father's doppelganger, any more than identical twins are each other's "harbingers of death".

No, if cloning could be carried out safely, there would be no reason to suggest that it would be an offence against nature. If we knew that cloning could produce healthy embryos, it would be foolish to retreat into horror. There is no reason to be frightened of cloning just because it involves using one individual's genetic material to create another individual. Indeed, if it were safe, it need be no more repugnant a way for people to get round their own infertility than by fertilising cells in test tubes.

But there's the rub: cloning isn't safe. It's all very well for journalists writing about the practical difficulties, to assert blithely that "any technical problems can no doubt be overcome if the will is there", but what evidence is there for such an optimistic view? At the absurd media circus that took place at the conference of the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, on Tuesday, in which Antinori was pursued to the loo by television cameras, there was no such evidence on offer.

It was pretty telling that the only vocal supporters of Antinori seem to be the Raelians, an American sect that believes that extraterrestrials peopled the earth, while all the scientists were ranged against him. And those scientists didn't need to dip a toe into the muddy waters of ethics. They didn't have to talk about taboos. They didn't have to query the desire to play god. They could just stick to the facts.

The fact that, for instance, it took 277 embryos to make one cloned sheep.; that the failures didn't just involve miscarriages, but also deformed lambs that could never make it into adulthood.; that cloned animals seem to age more quickly than their normally produced counterparts; that they display myriad physical problems; that, as Rudolf Jaenisch, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has said: "Only a tiny percentage of cloned animals appear to be normal. And some of these may in fact have brain development problems that are not apparent because animals are not sophisticated enough to demonstrate them."

Does even Professor Antinori want to see a technique that is so shaky played out with children? Could the parent responsible look into the eyes of its child and not feel a fear that was nothing to do with primitive taboos? Although the arguments against human reproductive cloning are so strong that most countries are passing laws against it, clearly Antinori, or some other ambitious doctor, will go ahead in the near future. They will go ahead because they can see wonderful riches ahead of them if they succeed. And that should really make us stop and think.

Even without the grandiose spectre of cloning on the horizon, fertility specialists are already bamboozling many women with the idea that their bodies can simply be reprogrammed at will. There are few areas of science so dominated by wishful thinking, by dreams and fantasies of being able to recast nature entirely. It comes as quite a shock, given the great publicity given to the occasional elderly woman who manages to conceive (as one 62-year-old did under Professor Antinori, unsurprisingly) or the occasional woman in her fifties who manages to conceive, to hear that still only about one in five couples who try in vitro fertilisation ends up with a baby.

But those women who have experienced failure hardly ever speak out – unless, in some celebrity interview, you might catch, say, a disappointed Anthea Turner fessing up that, despite the gloriously successful aura of the fertility industry, at the age of 41 she just hasn't been able to get the pregnancy she desires.

Between the hype of the fertility specialists and the reality there already yawns a great gap where thousands of dreams are dashed. The advent of this debate about cloning is making the gap yawn ever wider. It isn't possible, even in this world of science-fiction promises and wild experimentation, for every person to have the child they desire. Perhaps it's time that not just Professor Antinori, but all his colleagues, allowed themselves a little more humility and owned up to that fact.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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