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Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 2001 /14 Kislev 5762

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Send in the clones -- IN 1978 a science writer named David Rorvik produced a book, published by J.B. Lippincott, called In His Image: The Cloning of a Man. It purported to tell the story of an eccentric millionaire, called "Max" to protect his identity, who had financed an experiment whereby a nucleus from one of his cells was successfully transferred into a denucleated egg, and then deposited in the womb of a surrogate mother.

In due course, so Rorvik reported, a clone of "Max" had been born.

As a journalist, this was an early lesson in plausibility for me. I was asked to read the book, which had caused a sensation, and report on its contents. Wholly unqualified to judge its scientific elements, I chose instead to apply what might be called a smell test, and found the whole thing ridiculous. From beginning to end very nearly every aspect of In His Image seemed a clumsy invention: From "Max" himself, to the tropical isle where the secret research took place, to the virgin named "Sparrow" in whose womb Max Jr. (or would it be Max II?) took root.

In time, the sensation subsided, the press lost interest, and two years later a British court, in deciding a libel action, declared Rorvik's book to be "a fraud and a hoax."

Let us assume, however, that my youthful skepticism was misplaced, the court was wrong, and that Max Jr. is now somewhere in his middle twenties, living the life of a millionaire's offspring, and keeping up with the news. Would he be amused, enthralled, gratified or horrified by the tidings that Advanced Cell Technology, of Worcester, Mass., claims to have produced cloned human embryos, purportedly for medical research?

However Max Jr. reacts, it is fair to say that the prospect of cloning human embryos sets others ablaze. The House of Representatives banned human cloning research this past summer, and after ACT's revelation, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) announced that he would scrap an agreement with the Senate leadership to postpone discussion of cloning legislation, and seek a comprehensive ban on research in the final weeks of the current session. To this was added the voice of President Bush, who pronounced ACT's work to be "morally wrong," and was joined in the general condemnation by the Vatican, various medical ethicists, and a host of political conservatives.

It is worth noting, at this juncture, that ACT's claim is comparatively broad. Its researchers have succeeded in getting cloned cells to divide like fertilized eggs, which is not the same as getting cells to behave like a newly fertilized embryo, which would then develop stem cells that might be harvested and grown into replacement organs and tissues -- or, I suppose, a person. There is much work to be done, and getting from A to B is surprisingly difficult. There is no evidence that the process which gave us Dolly the sheep a few years ago can be easily replicated for humans.

For whatever reason, nearly everyone, here and elsewhere in the world, seems agreed that such research should not be pursued if it yields human clones. We seem to harbor deep misgivings about such things. Certain European countries, which smile upon such practices as euthanasia, have already banned human cloning. So have we, for that matter. So what is left is the old abortion debate: At what point is a cell or a group of cells or an embryo a human life, and should it ever be destroyed for any reason? Senator Brownback not only settles the scientific question to his own satisfaction, but is prepared to prosecute anyone who crosses the threshold.

To be sure, the advocates for stem-cell research, and the kind of work ACT is doing, overstate their case as well: Such experimentation, they say, is bound to yield cures for a host of dread diseases and syndromes, and who could look sufferers in the eye, and say no? It's a powerful, if rather emotive, contention, and largely speculative.

Within the political debate, of course, lurks the larger moral debate. Those who oppose research of this sort regard any use of human embryos, for science or otherwise, as a step toward perdition: "We're talking about human beings being created and harvested," says the president of the National Right to Life Committee, who raises the spectre of "human embryo farms." And the whole argument has unleashed much ugly talk about mad scientists playing god.

Yet the moral debate contains a political element as well. Abortion involves the destruction of a human fetus for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with health, and abortion is legal in America. Are we prepared to prosecute scientists who seek to cure disease? And how much sense does it make to ban research on human cells and embryos -- which might lead to advances in medicine -- while permitting the abortion of a fetus in the womb? Perhaps Senator Brownback has the answer.

Or maybe Max Jr. will step forward and tell his story.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal