It's Alive!

The 200-year conversation over biotechnology


Opponents of biotech progress are always demanding that before "we" deploy any new biotechnologies, "we" must have a "societal conversation" about the morality of things like cloning, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and genetically engineering babies. Where have they been for the past 200 years?

We've been having those "conversations" at least since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818. After that, there was H.G. Wells' 1896 classic, The Island of Dr. Moreau: A Possibility in which a evil scientist constructs half-human/half-animal monstrosities. Aldous Huxley followed in 1932 with the chilling dystopia of state-manufactured people, Brave New World. In 1976, Ira Levin published The Boys From Brazil, a novel in which old Nazis yearning to restore the Third Reich clone der Fuhrer. The most recent television portrayal of human cloning just aired on Tuesday night. In the opening show of CBS's new miniseries, Century City, lawyers in 2030 battle in court against the Feds to retrieve human embryonic stem cells seized by U.S. Customs so that they can be used to save the life of a 7 year old clone.

For citizens who prefer to take their moral narratives from the big screen, all of these books and more were turned into movies. In fact, Frankenstein movies have their own 144 page illustrated guide. Recent movies about cloning include the mildly comic Multiplicity (1996) and the Schwarzenegger clunker The Sixth Day (2000). The most cursory search of the web finds lots of sites devoted to fictionalized accounts of cloning and other genetic engineering techniques. By the way, one would think that biotech opponents would be pleased because most fictional accounts in fact dwell on the harms that new technologies can cause.

The ongoing societal conversation over the implications of modern biotechnology has not been confined to fiction. In the past half century, the news media have reported extensively (if not excessively) on biotechnological developments. For example, in the mid-1960s, some researchers succeeded in cloning frogs by transplanting nuclei from embryonic cells into enucleated frogs' eggs. Later in the decade, the February 15, 1969 issue of The New York Times reported on the successful efforts in Britain to fertilize human eggs in a test tube. The Times quoted a spokesman for John Cardinal Heenan Archbishop of Westminster who said that "starting human life in this way violated the natural law and was immoral." The dialogue over the moral standing of in vitro fertilization continued when Nature magazine defended the research asserting, "These are not perverted men in white coats doing nasty experiments on human beings, but reasonable scientists carrying out perfectly justifiable research."

On October 17, 1970, The New York Times described how British researchers had succeeded in producing cloned frogs by transplanting nuclei from adult cells into enucleated eggs. This achievement provoked a young Leon Kass to write an essay entitled, "The New Biology: What Price Relieving Man's Estate?" in the November 19, 1971 issue of Science. Kass warned: "[A] far more suitable technique for eugenic purposes will soon be upon us—namely, nuclear transplantation, or cloning…its extension to man merely requires the solution of certain technical problems." In the winter of 1971, biologist James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA's structure, in testimony before Congress called for a world-wide campaign aimed at educating citizens about cloning so that they could help devise possible control measures for the new technology. On March 5, 1972, The New York Times Magazine published a breathless feature article, "The Frankenstein Myth Becomes Reality—We Have the Awful Knowledge to Make Exact Copies of Human Beings" by bioethicist Willard Gaylin. Gaylin quoted researchers who predicted that human cloning would be possible in 10 to 20 years. He did not confine his discussion to cloning, he also speculated about genetic engineering of embryos and the creation of artificial wombs. "Any attempt at genetic engineering is bound to spark a public debate because it involves physical tampering with the substance of living things," wrote Gaylin. And that prediction surely proved right.

In 1978, we saw the birth of the first test-tube baby and the publishing sensation, In His Image: The Cloning of a Man in which author David Rorvik claimed to have been involved with a successful effort to produce a clone of an American millionaire. Although the book was a hoax, it sparked considerable handwringing in the print and broadcast media. On June 1, 1978, The New York Times reported on Congressional testimony in which biologists declared that cloning research had great potential value in studies of cancer, human genetic disease, aging, and agriculture. The article also reported that many scientists had dismissed the Rorvik book as a "fraud."

The July 20, 1980 issue of The New York Times Magazine feature article, "New Frontiers in Conception: Medical Breakthroughs and Moral Dilemmas," looked at the burgeoning field of in vitro fertilization just two years after the first successful IVF birth. The article also discussed the ethics of surrogacy and gamete donation. Horrifyingly, Princeton University bioethicist Paul Ramsey told the Magazine, "I'd rather every child were born illegitimate than for one to be manufactured." Despite Ramsey's misgivings, one of the first American IVF clinics to open in 1980 had already received 5000 letters from women willing to pay $4000 for IVF procedures in the hope of having a child.

So why rehearse all this old history? To counter the constantly propounded notion that humanity is facing the moral issues posed by new biotechnological developments for the first time. In fact, we've been talking seriously about the moral concerns surrounding new biomedical technologies for generations. However, history also shows that talking about such moral issues rarely resolves them in advance.

Typically it is the moral alarmists who grab and hold the attention of the public when new technologies are still largely speculative gleams in a researcher's eye. Fortunately, this preliminary dominance has turned out to be only temporary. When technologies become actually available, people begin to appreciate fully the benefits that they offer to themselves and to their loved ones. Consequently, despite the relentless efforts of a generation of prominent moral alarmists like Leon Kass, Daniel Callahan, and Jeremy Rifkin to stifle new biomedical advances, nearly 25 years later, some 200,000 babies have been born in the United States by means of IVF fertilization and IVF is widely applauded; some 10,000 babies have been born to surrogate mothers; and more than 1000 babies have been born using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis; though there are still no cloned babies.