A Freezer Full of Twins


Boston.--At some point all parents, except those with too much confidence and too little imagination, have lain awake at night thinking about how we would do it -- child-raising -- differently if we had a second chance. We would be braver or more cautious, more permissive or more authoritarian, more understanding or more judgmental.

One of the givens of life, however, is that children are unique, or as Mr. Rogers would put it, special. We know that we can't raise a son or daughter one way, then start all over again with the same exact genetic material.

Or can we?

Just a week ago, Dr. Jerry Hall announced to all the world that his team at George Washington University Medical Center had successfully split human embryos and made identical copies of them. None of these embryos was actually implanted in a womb. The researchers purposely chose genetically abnormal embryos that could not have been brought to term and were in fact discarded six days after fertilization.

But since then, the specters raised by this research have been multiplying faster than any reproductive cell.

There is the specter of a freezer full of identically genetic "twins" all waiting for wombs. There is the specter of bioscientists running amok in the gene pool.

Normally I don't belong to the Jurassic Park school of the scientifically anxious. I don't worry about mad scientists creating human monsters in their labs. When I think of biogenetic research, I don't conjure up the image of Frankenstein. What I do see is an ethical Jack-in-the-Box.

Wind up the science box and Surprise: Baby Louise pops out of the petri dish! Surprise: Embryos in the Freezer section of your bio-market! Surprise: You too can copy an embryo at the bio-Xerox center! The research comes flying out of the lab and into the public consciousness with little warning. We learn what we can do before we figure out what we want to do.

This element of surprise is especially disturbing when we are talking about the act(s) of creation. The new reproductive choices of the past decade have forced an endless series of hard ethical decisions. We've seen one couple wrangle over custody of frozen pre-embryos. We've learned about the misuse of genetic testing to abort female fetuses. We've met parents who conceived a baby as a bone-marrow donor for their daughter. We've read about a man who committed suicide, leaving behind 15 vials of frozen sperm as a legacy for his lover.

This time, the cloning of the human embryos was devised to help infertile couples. It would increase the supply of embryos in fertility clinics. But the idea of copying two, six or ten other identical embryos raises questions that have little to do with infertility.

Is it all right to give birth to two or three genetically identical children over a period of years? If one child comes out "just right," should parents have the option of picking another such "winner?" Should adults be allowed to store away a "spare" in case of the death of a child or in case they need one as a donor for a sick child?

What if a child who was cloned grows up and wants to give birth to her own pre-frozen twin? And while we are conjuring up fantasies could a couple sell spare embryos the way they can now sell sperm or eggs?

My own answers to these questions are: No and Whoa. This biotechnology comes out of the marketplace of ideas which is too often literally a marketplace. This time the market is responding to the demand for a people product.

"Our goal," said Dr. Hall, "is to help parents achieve pregnancy." But it's fair to ask when these technologies put too much importance on pregnancy and not enough on parenting, even on children.

The concept of cloning embryos both overemphasizes and undermines individuality.

On the one hand, cloning is part of a reproductive technology dedicated to the importance of passing along our own unique parental genes. On the other hand, the mass reproduction of one child inevitably devalues the uniqueness of that child.

Yes, we are products of our environment as well as our genes. Even two clones raised by the same parents would have some different experiences -- just as identical twins do. But you don't have to believe in Frankenstein to worry about the effect of having a clone of your own in the freezer.

For the moment, the mass reproducing of people is still in its embryonic stage. But this latest scientific surprise reminds me of the line from an old song: "There will never be another you."

Don't be too sure.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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