The Human Male is Unnecessary
Whilst Hollywood busily prepares the next Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Australian museums decide to clone the (extinct) Tasmanian tiger and science documentary junkies across the world squirm with excitement as the Discovery Channel broadcasts its latest Jurassic Park-esque programme about cloning a mammoth... the world's most famous sheep contracts arthritis. Not so glamorous. Dolly, at six years old is on a course on anti-inflammatories. The glamour and the ethics of cloning have dominated the press in equal proportions since her birth. But why are we so obsessed, when the implications of the genome project, for example, have potentially more terrifying prospects but not nearly so much publicity? Perhaps it is not such and attention-grabbing, science-fiction-selling concise word. And perhaps it is the charade of animals which we can now add to our 'clonable animals' list. But the question still burning on everyone's lips is, of course, can it be done with humans. Well, yes, no and we don't know is the answer coming from the scientists.
Antinori is just one in a line of scientists who claim to have the expertise and announced on 24th April that he had indeed impregnated three women with clones. Two years ago, the little known Raelian cult also announced their plans to clone a baby that died at 10 months, with 300, 000 pounds of the couples money. Let's see now. Nine months, plus a little bit of time in the lab...where is their child? Dolly was born after 276 failed attempts. Approximately a third of all calves to have been born alive from 9,000 cloned embryos died young, many of them grotesquely large. Some stubborn species-dogs, horses, monkeys and chickens-seem to want to retain some sense of their identity. But then they are not having the ethical debates that we are.
Whatever your ethical ideals about 'designer babies' and human cloning, however there is no denying that genetic technology could be the next medical revolution, just as the discovery of the vaccine or the invention of paracetemol. For example, one year after Dolly's birth, cystic fibrosis sufferers were treated with an enzyme secreted in lamb's milk. The lamb's had previously been genetically modified to secrete the enzyme. The technology proved to be 'safe and well tolerated' as the 22 patients showed 'encouraging signs'. Dr James of PPL, the parent company which produced Dolly the sheep, believes that we may be able to introduce blood-clotting proteins to help haemophiliacs, as well as finding cures for cancers, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, coronary heart disease, strokes, diabetes and other degenerative effects of ageing.
Indeed Dr Wilmut of the Roslin Institute, 'Dolly's fourth parent,' is turning his attention to the therapeutic enterprise of discovering how to manipulate individual cell and the genes within them to fabricate cells for transplant and to alter DNA in living people. He is mildly bemused by the fact that other genetic alteration methods do not feature so highly on the billing in the ethical debate.
What about the British couple who donated their male embryo to a couple who wanted children because the pre-gender diagnosis IVF treatment failed to produce a daughter? The Masterton couple wanted a baby girl, after another daughter, Nicole, had died aged three. The couple sparked national debate last October when they tried, unsuccessfully, to overturn the British ban on sex selection.
What about baby Adam? What will he think of the world when he discovers that his embryo was screened for bone marrow compatibility with his six-year-old sister with a rare disorder, before he was allowed to be transplanted into his mother's womb? It adds a whole new dimension to the phrase 'planned pregnancy!'
In an age where Biotech companies are scouting the planet in the search of rare traits in animals, plants, viruses and humans, which they can alter slightly and then patent, how long will it be until the human genetic code is the intellectual property of some Trans-national corporation? Are we prepared to let the human genome become a product? Is it moral for genetic material to be taken from species, mainly in the Southern Hemisphere, into the laboratories and corporate boardrooms of the north? Theses are the questions we must be asking ourselves. Already ANDi, the chimpanzee has been patented and a chimpanzee's genetic code is 99% the same as that of human beings! (Why one would want a glow in the dark chimp is quite a befuddling notion to me anyway-unless you need to find him easily in a nightclub, of course.)
And what about the fact that under the American constitution at present anything is entirely legal?! How are Biotech companies, or obscure cults for that matter, going to 'regard their own moratorium' as the current guidelines suggest, when hundreds of thousands of pounds are just waiting to be exploited? Not to mention the couples who, in the Masterton's words, would find it 'intolerable to live the rest of [their] lives knowing that there was treatment out there which could help [them].'
What about the genetically engineered pigs with human compatible hearts that could spread unknown pig viruses to the human population? It is estimated that 100 million people world wide could benefit from therapeutic cloning instead, whereby embryonic stem cells are grown into body tissues.
Yeah! Fantastic, why don't we ignore Antinori, who has not revealed to the media any of the pigs he has claimed to clone, and concentrate on useful stuff? In Britain, and across most of the world, the experimentation of embryo cells for more than 14 days is illegal. Dr Wilmut is in the process of applying for a license. There is the small problem of the fact that the embryos will simply be destroyed, a practice which all the major church leaders argue is fundamentally wrong. Including the Archbishop of Westminster who said that the research had disturbing implications as it "was using human life as disposable organic matter." Scientists counter-argument is that after only fourteen days, the embryo is just a ball of cells and destroying it is not as immoral as aborting a child weeks into the pregnancy. Anyway, what if the embryo were to develop into a human baby? What perception of the world would that child have living with the knowledge that he or she what been created to save another persons life or indeed benefit humanity? And is this practice fundamentally less wrong than cloning?
This myriad of social and ethical questions should come before we ask whether we would even want Antinori to succeed in his Frankenstein mission. The of widening the gulf between rich and poor, and even creating a sub class of human beings because few could afford the therapeutic benefits that genetic technology could offer, is infinitely more horrific than having, for example, thirty identical aardvarks or even two of me! Dr Wilmut fears less that Antinori will succeed than that he in trying, he will hurt women and destroy embryos. He believes that the technology (and probably the world) is not ready because the oldest cloned calves are only four, infantile in a species that can live to twenty. An explicit post mortem of Dolly will reveal more when she dies, before she finds her new home in the National Museum of Scotland.
What the cloning project across the world has shown, however, is that the embryo's genome can be 'reprogrammed' later on in life. Perhaps this fact alone will put the fear of God into the man of the next century when the Medical Research Council predicts that the human male could be infertile! "I don't think the human male is redundant, I think the human male in unnecessary." (Lord Winton, Professor of Fertility Studies, Hammersmith Hospital." Perhaps this is just the beginning of humanity losing confidence in itself.
© Clare Sharkey 2002