Leading article: Cloning presents an opportunity, not a threat

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The Independent Online
Why shouldn't we clone human beings? It seems likely that scientists will soon find a way to produce a healthy baby that is an exact genetic replica of an existing person. After the cloning of Dolly the sheep, there are still problems with inserting into a new animal genes which have been damaged by the passage of time, but they are almost certain to be solved. More to the point, once human cloning is possible, someone, somewhere is going to do it, even if those problems have not been solved. This means a big dislocation in our moral universe.

So we had better decide what we think about it. Our contribution to this debate is simple: we are all for it. We must not try to shackle the human yearning to find things out. The worst response now would be to be guided by our emotional reaction against scientists dabbling in "unnatural" experiments. Our starting position is that the research must go on and if, when human cloning becomes possible, it seems that we would learn more by doing it, we see no objection in principle.

Of course, messing about with genes is frightening. But the alternative is to say, "We don't want to know that", and try to stop the onward rush of curiosity, which could have even more frightening consequences. Take the analogy of splitting the atom. That has made the world a more dangerous place, but would it have been right not to do it? At the time, this was not a choice, because the Allies were in a race against the enemies of democracy and, fortunately for us, the right side won. It might have been better to have split the atom and then chosen not to drop the Bomb, but it could never have been right to tell the scientists to stop.

The choice is not so stark now, but the principle still applies. We could argue that, as it is going to happen anyway, it doesn't matter whether or not human cloning is a good thing. The decision yesterday to allow Diane Blood to be inseminated with her dead husband's sperm in Belgium makes a mockery of the British law on fertility, and the same is likely to happen to the British ban on human cloning.

We could argue that it would be wrong for the Western scientific elite to abdicate its leadership, even assuming it could be persuaded to, because that leadership would then pass to those who are less accountable to rational democratic debate, less answerable to international controls.

But neither argument would answer the fundamental question: would it be right to clone a person? Because if there were a good argument against cloning, there would be a good case for international controls of the kind being urged yesterday by Dagmar Roth-Behrendt, a German Euro-MP. The cause of international regulation is not yet hopeless: no one would describe the controls on world-wide nuclear proliferation as perfect, but catastrophe has so far been averted.

The possibility of cloning people is in a different category of scientific advance, in that the product would be a person. This undoubtedly raises several disturbing issues, but these have been clouded by B-movie images of scientists as crazed Dr Frankenstein figures. We need to forget the science-fiction idea of clones as some kind of mass-produced robotic slave, and think instead in terms of identical twins. Identical twins are genetically the same as each other, yet grow into distinct and autonomous individuals. It may seem gross to copy a human being, and it is hard to imagine a woman who would want to bear a clone child. But organ transplants were quite recently regarded as a form of grave-robbing, whereas now it would be ethically unsound not to carry out a transplant if it were possible to do so.

It may seem unfair to the individuals concerned that they should discover their artificial origin and then live their lives as scientific experiments. But Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, has lived with her (admittedly less dramatic) knowledge, and it is one of the characteristics of living things that they tend not to resent being alive.

Some of the critics of cloning have called for research to be directed instead into finding a cure for cancer or for Aids. This is a piquant misunderstanding, because it is the technology of cloning and genetic manipulation which offers the most promising avenues for doing precisely these things.

That is why, while we applaud the spirit and foresight of our legislators, we do not agree with the ban on human cloning in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which was supported by the genetic advisory committee yesterday. The response to scientific discoveries should not be bans but more research, more debate, more involvement by scientists themselves in public argument, and more political controls, including international agreements.

The case against humanity's ability to safeguard its destiny is not made by scientific breakthroughs, but by our collective inability to protect our environment and sustain the ecology of the planet. In the end, cloning and genetic manipulation are more likely to provide the solution to this threat than to add to it.