Twenty years ago today, a domestic sheep named Dolly was born. She was the first mammal cloned using the nucleus of an adult cell. Her creators in Scotland held off announcing that their achievement until February, 1997. Headlines immediately cited ethical concerns and many advocated the banning of the technique, especially an attempts to clone a human being. In my May, 1997 article "The Twin Paradox" I reported a bunch of these bioethical pronunciamentos:
But Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) … introduced a bill to ban the federal funding of human cloning or human cloning research. "I want to send a clear signal," said the senator, "that this is something we cannot and should not tolerate. This type of research on humans is morally reprehensible."
Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, hurriedly said that human cloning should be immediately banned. Perennial Luddite Jeremy Rifkin grandly pronounced that cloning "throws every convention, every historical tradition, up for grabs."At the putative opposite end of the political spectrum, conservative columnist George Will chimed in: "What if the great given–a human being is a product of the union of a man and woman–is no longer a given?"
In addition to these pundits and politicians, a whole raft of bioethicists declared that they, too, oppose human cloning. Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center said flat out: "The message must be simple and decisive: The human species doesn't need cloning." George Annas of Boston University agreed: "Most people who have thought about this believe it is not a reasonable use and should not be allowed…. This is not a case of scientific freedom vs. the regulators."
Assuming human cloning is safe (and no one knew back in 1997 how safe or unsafe the technique would prove to be), I could discern no ethical reason why the birth of a younger identical twin would be any more immoral than the births of same-age identical twins.
Dolly's creation turns out not to be an ethical cautionary tale, but rather an example of how complicated biology is and how slowly biotechnological progress takes place. Twenty years later, no one has cloned a human being. But Dolly's birth did spark a great deal of research into the possible therapeutic uses of adult, embryonic, and induced pluripotent stem cells.
By the way, if anyone wants to clone me, please just go ahead.