FIVE years ago, I went to a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. The subject was developments in reproductive technologies and genetic engineering.
A group of demonstrators stood outside the building holding signs that said, "We shall not be cloned!" I remember thinking that these people were right to be concerned about the use and abuse of genetic knowledge.
It seemed strange that there was no place to go to talk about these subjects in Washington except the street. But I pushed those thoughts aside because I knew that their worries about cloning were way ahead of the science. It would be 15 to 20 years before anyone attempted to clone a human embryo.
Dr. Jerry Hall and his four colleagues who are in the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Fertility at George Washington University Medical Center proved me wrong.
On Oct. 13, they presented a paper at the American Fertility Society's annual meeting. They described the creation of 22 nonviable embryos they had made by fertilizing 22 eggs with more than one sperm.
When more than one sperm penetrates an egg, the resulting embryo cannot become a baby. They took 17 of the abnormal embryos and put them in a specially prepared fluid. There the embryos were allowed to divide into two, four or eight-cell embryos. Then they separated these into single cells. The cells began dividing again, meaning that 48 genetically identical embryos had been made from 17.
And that meant that Dr. Hall and his colleagues had performed the first published experiment involving the cloning of human embryos.
The paper was awarded the General Program Prize. A few days later, when the experiment was brought to the attention of the press, the researchers found themselves at ground zero of a moral controversy about what they had done.
The kind of cloning that troubled the demonstrators at the meeting I went to is precisely the sort the media have gone berserk about.
Will we see mad scientists making thousands of copies of Hitler, Mao or Stalin? Would unscrupulous doctors charge huge fees to store embryo copies of wealthy individuals to use as a source of organs or tissues if they required a transplant? Would governments begin to compete with one another to see who could clone the smartest scientists?
But the kind of experiment done by the scientists at George Washington would not allow any of these things to be tried. Splitting an embryo to make copies is not the same as taking the genetic instructions from one cell in an adult and using them to make copies of another adult. There is a big difference between the hypothetical cloning of dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" and what took place in this toe-in-the-water cloning experiment.
The yammering is nothing more than froth that has bubbled out of ignorance about what cloning means.
It would be impossible to use the techniques employed by Dr. Hall to make copies of Hitler or Stalin or any other person unless someone had thought to keep copies of their embryos stored in a freezer when they were conceived.
Zillionaires needing transplants would not be helped by having a frozen embryo twin. They would need a live adult twin who, presumably, would have something to say about his or her willingness to make a heart or pancreas available to a twin.
And while a government bent on world domination might be able to use cloning to increase dramatically the odds of having many geniuses on hand to build diabolical weapons, cloning would only help if scientists had stored copies of embryos of those who had already shown themselves to be geniuses. Even then there is still no guarantee that the same genetic program will produce the same brilliant scientist.
This is not to say that moral concern about cloning embryos is groundless. It is not at all clear that parents ought to have the right to select twins or triplets on demand. Nor is it obvious that allowing a couple to store identical embryos and use them to recreate twins later would be fair to children made in this way.
It is not too late to begin the debate about the ethics of cloning and other reproductive technologies. But, as a new report from the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment notes, "the federal government is without a formal forum that addresses bioethical issues. In fact, a fully operational body has not existed in over a decade."
The nation desperately needs the creation of a federal forum for bioethics, a congressional bioethics board, where topics such as cloning can be publicly discussed and debated.
The typhoon unleashed by the attempt to show that it is possible to clone a human embryo just might be enough to persuade Congress and the president to create a place where Americans vTC can talk about the wisdom of doing so.
Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota Medical School.