PHILADELPHIA -- If, as many people predict, human cloning is looming in our future, then who should and who shouldn't be allowed to be cloned?
University of Pennsylvania ethicist Glenn McGee is proposing a system that would, in essence, bar anyone who wants to make a copy of himself or herself.
"It may sound kind of weird to say, the people we would turn away are the people who want it most," said McGee, who works at Penn's Center for Bioethics.
McGee drew up his proposal, called "the adoption model" for human cloning, in collaboration with sheep cloning pioneer Ian Wilmut. Wilmut is the father of an adopted child.
"If you set out to make a copy, you wouldn't treat that child as an individual," Wilmut said. "For me personally I still have not heard a suggested use for copying a person that I find acceptable."
McGee and Wilmut presented their opinions on human cloning Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia.
Wilmut said he did foresee some important uses for cloning techniques in medicine -- uses that would be banned under some of the proposed cloning laws drawn up in Congress.
Cloning technology could someday allow doctors to create bone marrow or tissues that could help people with Parkinson's disease or muscular dystrophy, he said.
Also, scientists have already employed tools of cloning to transfer the nucleus of a fertilized egg -- produced from an egg and sperm -- into the outer part of another egg. Such techniques allow some women with defective eggs to bear children.
On Thursday, a Republican measure to ban human cloning collapsed in the Senate amid fears that it would curtail important medical research. Senate Democrats are offering a less restrictive alternative.
McGee said he unwittingly promoted the wrong idea of cloning last year when he was quoted as saying, "This is as close to a Xerox machine as we are going to get in reproductive technology." Actually, he said, the news accounts cut off the second half of his statement: "But it's not."
Cloning would not give people a copy, he said, it would give them a baby, a distinct human being.
Clones would probably turn out less similar to their parent than identical twins are to one another. Dolly, the sheep cloned by Wilmut, is 20 percent bigger than her mother was at the same age, McGee said.
To create Dolly, Wilmut, of the Roslin Institute in Scotland, removed the nucleus of a mammary cell from an adult sheep and transferred it to a hollowed-out egg from another sheep. From that process, Dolly inherited some genetic material that was present in the donor egg, meaning she was not a 100 percent genetic copy of her mother, McGee said.
McGee and Wilmut stressed that the danger in cloning is not in its ability to make copies of humans. The danger is that, in thinking they were getting a copy, parents would be prone to treat a child as such.
Wilmut and McGee said people today focus on the rights of adults to reproduce freely at the expense of the concerns of children.
McGee said would-be parents of clones should undergo interviews similar to those required for people who want to adopt.
Under such a system, prospective parents would have to demonstrate that they could provide for a child and that they wanted to be cloned for legitimate reasons.
What would those legitimate reasons be?
McGee said some couples might find cloning the best option for avoiding the transmission of some deadly genetic disease. Other couples might suffer from a form of infertility that prohibits any other option for having a baby.
Wilmut disagrees on this point, arguing that most infertile couples could find another option.
Art Caplan, another Penn ethicist who spoke at the conference, agreed with the underlying premise that restrictions should be XTC aimed at protecting the clone. "If I made a clone and took him down Broad Street, who would be in danger?" he asks. "No one."
But the clone could personally face all sorts of dangers, Caplan noted, beyond just the hazard of a narcissistic parent.
Although it is not guaranteed, a clone would probably inherit his father's tendency to get fat or bald, or to develop colon cancer or Alzheimer's disease, and would therefore have an unusual window into his own future.
There's also the risk of what Caplan called the "Woody Allen, Soon-Yi syndrome." That is, if a woman cloned herself, the child may come to resemble the mother in her younger days, and the father, with no genetic link to the child, might be tempted to fall in love with her.
Wilmut and the ethicists speaking at the meeting agreed, however, that the primary objection to human cloning today is safety. The technology is far from being refined.
It took Wilmut 277 tries to get Dolly last year. And there have been no other reports of animals born as a result of being cloned from an adult cell.
In any case, it is unlikely that people will be lining up to be cloned. Most people look at themselves and want the genetic version of the American dream, McGee said -- to pass on something better to their children.
Pub Date: 2/15/98