The Confusion over Cloning

Cloning Human Beings: Report and Recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission

by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission
110, plus 5-page addendum pp., Rockland, Maryland, June 1997

There is nothing like sex or violence for capturing the immediate attention of the state. Only a day after Franklin Roosevelt was told in October 1939 that both German and American scientists could probably make an atom bomb, a small group met at the President’s direction to talk about the problem and within ten days a committee was undertaking a full-scale investigation of the possibility. Just a day after the public announcement on February 23, 1997, that a sheep, genetically identical to another sheep, had been produced by cloning, Bill Clinton formally requested that the National Bioethics Advisory Commission “undertake a thorough review of the legal and ethical issues associated with the use of this technology….”

The President had announced his intention to create an advisory group on bioethics eighteen months before, on the day that he received the disturbing report of the cavalier way in which ionizing radiation had been administered experimentally to unsuspecting subjects.1 The commission was finally formed, after a ten-month delay, with Harold Shapiro, President of Princeton, as chair and a membership consisting largely of academics from the fields of philosophy, medicine, public health, and law, a representation from government and private foundations, and the chief business officer of a pharmaceutical company. In his letter to the commission the President referred to “serious ethical questions, particularly with respect to the possible use of this technology to clone human embryos” and asked for a report within ninety days. The commission missed its deadline by only two weeks.

In order not to allow a Democratic administration sole credit for grappling with the preeminent ethical issue of the day, the Senate held a day-long inquiry on March 12, a mere three weeks after the announcement of Dolly. Lacking a body responsible for any moral issues outside the hanky-panky of its own membership, the Senate assigned the work to the Subcommittee on Public Health and Safety of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, perhaps on the grounds that cloning is a form of the production of human resources. The testimony before the subcommittee was concerned not with issues of the health and safety of labor but with the same ethical and moral concerns that preoccupied the bioethics commission. The witnesses representing the biotechnology industry were especially careful to assure the senators that they would not dream of making whole babies and were interested in cloning solely as a laboratory method for producing cells and tissues that could be used in transplantation therapies.

It seems pretty obvious why, just after the Germans’ instant success in Poland, Roosevelt was in a hurry. The problem, as he said to Alexander Sachs, who first informed him about the possibility of the Bomb, was to “see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.” The origin of Mr. Clinton’s sense of urgency is not so clear. After all, it is not as if human genetic clones don’t appear every day of the week, about thirty a day in the United States alone, given…

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