November 6, 2007

Science must win Clone Wars

Last month, biologist Kevin Eggan took to the stage at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and startled everyone with his announcement: More than a year after their proposal to start human therapeutic-cloning research had been approved, Eggan and his team were still at square one. Despite spending more than $100,000 on advertising, they had yet to find even one woman willing to donate her eggs.

In retrospect, maybe the scientists shouldn’t have been surprised by

this reaction. After all, when has cloning ever been an easy product to sell? Although it has vast potential to transform lives—from producing pancreatic and brain cells to curing diabetes and Alzheimer’s to increasing dwindling populations of endangered species—cloning has never been short of critics. Some groups pan it for being anti-life because it makes use of living cells, while others call it a blasphemous attempt at playing God. Thus, staunch opposition, as evinced by the overwhelmingly discouraging response to Eggan’s project or the surprisingly strong anti-cloning rally, which attracted more than 2200 people in St. Louis in late August, has impeded any breakthrough inventions that cloning could have produced. Many politicians have also taken stands against the technique: President Bush himself accuses cloning of being merely “growing human beings for spare body parts.”

What gets lost in translation, however, is that cloning is anything but anti-life. The embryos that are needed for the technology are merely microscopic fragments—barely the width of a human hair. Cloning extracts medically potent stem cells from these otherwise redundant cells, stem cells that can be conditioned to develop into any other type of cell. Using these cells to save lives is pro-life. Anti-life would be to ban the use of these embryos—which have only the potential to grow into human beings—and prevent actual, living human beings from reaping their benefits.

Just as dangerous is a burgeoning population that denounces cloning as an immoral attempt to manipulate nature to serve human purposes. This includes the European Union, UNESCO and the WHO, all of which state that cloning is an “affront to human dignity.” However, there is no sin in desiring to elevate one’s quality of life. We’ve been doing it since we were created. From carving a rock into a wheel to felling trees to make shelter, human beings have always used technology to broaden their horizons.

Moreover, those who repudiate cloning in terms of its disruption of “God’s will” must concede that we are continuously eroding His creations every day. Even if it’s not as drastic as genetic engineering, we are nevertheless “messing” with His plans whenever we dye our hair, wear braces, or cut our nails. If humans have the right to change these parts of themselves, then no one should take away the right to have healthier babies, fewer maladies, or longer lives.

Perhaps those who point to the heath risks of cloning have more legitimate qualms about the procedure. After all, Dolly, the first cloned sheep, died prematurely, and a cloned cow suffered from abnormalities and died several weeks later. Plenty of evidence highlights the perils associated with the cloning process. However, history has shown time and again that some of the biggest risks taken in the past eventually made the future that much safer. Who could have conceived of c-sections a century ago? Now, they are performed routinely. Organ transplants—an alien and ludicrous idea only fifty years ago—now grant longer lives to thousands every year. We should be proud of such advances, because they are testaments to what human ambition and effort can achieve.

There are, of course, signs of hope for cloning. Take Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. In August, Blagojevich signed a law permanently allowing state money to fund embryonic stem cell research in Illinois. Meanwhile, New Jersey Governor John Corzine has vowed to invest $150,000 of his own money to persuade state residents to vote to borrow $450 million to fund stem cell research over the next 10 years. It is heartening that at least some politicians believe that cloning is a sincere attempt to enhance our lives.

Cloning shouldn’t be proscribed just because it’s risky or immoral: Risks shall be overcome in the near future if support is given in the present, and morality won’t be an issue if we all learn to value human life above abstract supernatural powers and isolated individual feelings of dissent.

Prakriti Mishra is a first-year in the College.