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Petri-fied about the future

The reaction to the alleged cloned baby shows that we have never been further from a Brave New World.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Science & Tech

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A company linked to a bizarre American sect, which allegedly believes that humans are created by aliens, has announced to the world that it has cloned a baby, nicknamed Eve – and the world has worked itself into a frenzy of disbelief and condemnation, with many calling for a worldwide ban on the cloning of humans.

Yet again, the spectre of a Brave New World is conjured up, in which designer babies are cloned to order, and we sacrifice our humanity on the altar of science. But is this likely? And why do we seem so willing to believe that it is?

Officially, the jury is still out on whether the company, Clonaid, really has managed to clone a baby. Given that the sect believes that humans were originally cloned by aliens from outer space, it seems highly likely that they would claim to clone a baby, and deeply implausible that they have actually done so. The scientific community is sceptical about whether such reproductive cloning of humans is even possible at the moment, and the consensus seems to be that, given the likelihood of deformities and other problems, it would not be a good idea. I’m with the scientists on this one – after all, they are the ones who know.

The discussion about a ban, though, is not a scientific discussion, and it is led by people who don’t know. They don’t know the ins and outs of cloning techniques, and they don’t know the possible benefits or dangers that human reproductive cloning might bring. What they do know, with unshakeable certainty, is that cloning babies would be a Very Bad Thing; and that it is consequently better not to know how to do it, because once we have the knowledge, who knows what we might do with it?

This is the precautionary principle in action, and it is far more dangerous than the antics and claims of an oddball sect. It preaches that ignorance is bliss – to the point where society should move to ban something that has probably not even happened, just in case something goes wrong someday. This anti-human view implies that once society knows how to use certain aspects of science and technology, it will use them for the most base and dangerous ends. And what gives rise to it has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of hypothetically cloned babies, but a loss of faith in ourselves, and in the future.

Just imagine if conventional medical science had developed according to the dictat of the precautionary principle. Operations, x-rays, transplants, antibiotics – all of these lifesaving developments would have been ruled out on the grounds that nobody knew what potential problems they might cause, so better not to take the risk.

More recently, therapeutic cloning techniques, which seem to promise tremendous advances in the treatment of debilitating diseases, would have been blocked had the precautionary principle taken hold. Indeed, while mainstream politicians, scientists and commentators in the UK often champion stem cell research, there remains enough unease around these techniques for them to be stymied at certain stages – often because those with other prejudices and agendas are able to channel these through the widespread anti-cloning sentiment.

So in the UK, veteran anti-abortion campaigner Josephine Quintavalle recently won a High Court ruling against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). The court ruled that the HFEA could not license embryo screening techniques that would enable couples with sick children to select ‘donor siblings’ – in other words, allowing couples to use reproductive technology to have children who could act as blood or tissue donors to their siblings (1). And in the USA, the stringent restrictions on stem cell research have been brought in by a largely pro-life administration.

It is telling that even those who champion therapeutic cloning techniques are calling for a worldwide ban on reproductive cloning. A distinction is made between the recognised benefits to human health brought about by therapeutic cloning and, as one UK newspaper’s editorial put it, ‘the sick global race among maverick scientists striving to become the first to produce a human clone’ (2). But while there is clearly something dubious about the pursuits of those maverick scientists, there is a lot to be said for the race to push the boundaries of science – regardless of whether or not there are proven benefits to doing so. Otherwise, how will we ever know what science, in the hands of humanity, can do?

Throughout history, all manner of significant scientific, technological and medical developments have taken place, because of society’s thirst for new knowledge, and its willingness to take the leap and apply that knowledge. In the vast majority of cases, this has been for the human good. People live longer, healthier and better lives, taking for granted things that would have been considered impossible 100 years ago.

But things are not perfect, and our nervousness about taking such leaps today does not spring from any notion that they are. It comes from an unfounded suspicion that we will use new science and technology to destroy the planet, and ourselves. As though anybody – even a peculiar American sect – has the interest, or the ability, to do that.

If and when a human baby is cloned, there will clearly be a need for a debate about scientific standards, ethics, and regulation. But the fact that a rumour of a human clone generates more excitement about a worldwide ban than it does about the science behind cloning indicates that today’s society is less interested in moving forward than it is in holding back. Nobody wants a Brave New World – but who wants a society scared into stasis by mere possibilities?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Genetics

(1) Ruling blocks ‘designer baby’ bid, BBC News, 20 December 2002

(2) Mavericks and miracles: Time for a global ban on human cloning, Guardian, 30 December 2002

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Topics Science & Tech

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