Well, give the Raelians this much – they know how to put on a show. The group, which claims to have cloned human beings and brought them to term as healthy babies, has managed to turn a genuine scientific and ethical issue into a sideshow circus. While it is possible the Raelian Cult has the technological equipment and ability to clone a human, it is extremely unlikely and, if they have succeeded, it is morally repugnant.
In some ways, cloning animals is already old hat. Scientists have been doing it for years with sheep, mice, cows, pigs, cats and other mammals. Cloning humans would not be that different. We all start the same way – from a single fertilized egg. Using a process called nuclear transfer, scientists can remove the nucleus taken from the cell of an adult and insert it into an egg that has had its nucleus removed. With a little prodding, cell division starts and the egg, it is hoped, develops normally into an embryo, which is then transplanted into the uterus of a surrogate mother. This “reproductive” cloning procedure produces a genetically identical, but much younger version of the original person.
Another type of cloning already takes place in human beings – identical twins. Indeed, the Dionne quintuplets were clones of a fertilized egg that divided three times before the cells fell apart and grew into separate individuals. They are genetically identical, yet do they feel somehow less human because of it? Are they ostracized for not being genetically unique? Do they fight over who the “original” person is? I think not. Unfortunately, these are the sorts of concerns most often brought up when reproductive cloning is discussed in the media. Though valid questions, such concerns are ultimately red herrings at this point. There are much more disturbing issues associated with the technological procedure of reproductive human cloning that need to be addressed before such an endeavor should ever be attempted.
First, cloning mammals has a dismal success rate. More than 97 per cent of all such attempts fail. Many fail at the start. Others develop into embryos that are implanted into a female surrogate mother, only to be quickly miscarried. Some die shortly after birth. Some suffer from serious abnormalities. Because of these technical problems alone, we cannot seriously consider trying to clone a human at this time.
Even if a healthy birth was assured, we would still have other problems to face. Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, was born with shortened “telomeres” – little bits of DNA that cap our chromosomes. Our telomeres shorten as we age, and Dolly’s were far shorter than her young age suggested – more in line, in fact, with the age of her donor. That could help explain why Dolly has developed arthritis at an early age.
Last fall, researchers also discovered that seemingly healthy cloned mice suffer from abnormalities. Analysis of genes in the livers and placentas of one group showed that up to four per cent of them were malfunctioning. Other research has found that some cloned mice die far younger than those reproduced sexually, while others become obese.
Scientists have also had difficulties cloning successive generations of mammals. Clones of clones become less and less likely to be able to produce a successive generation of clones. What would that mean for cloned humans? Would their offspring, cloned or sexually reproduced, inherit defects that would accumulate through successive generations? When there are so many questions arising from the work already performed with other mammals, it is outrageous that any group would ignore the known risks and proceed with such experiments.
There are all sorts of ethical issues raised by the prospect of human reproductive cloning. But to have a truly informed debate, we need to focus on what is most relevant to the current reality. Right now, too much of the discussion is focused on the presumed psychological effects of being a cloned human and not enough on the health risks.