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Cloning Humans

by Timothy J. Madigan

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 17, Number 3.

The world was stunned by the news in late February 1997 that a British embryologist named Ian Wilmut and his research team had successfully cloned a lamb named Dolly from an adult sheep. Dolly was created by replacing the DNA of one sheep's egg with the DNA of another sheep's udder. While plants and lower forms of animal life have been successfully cloned for many years now, before Wilmut's announcement it had been thought by many to be unlikely that such a procedure could be performed on higher mammals. The world media was immediately filled with heated discussions and pronouncements - many by representatives from religious bodies - about the ethical implications of cloning, especially since the real possibility of cloning humans was now on the table. As Gustav Niebuhr, religion writer for the New York Times, wrote shortly after Wilmut's announcement: "The cloning of an adult mammal offers a striking example of how technology can outpace the moral and social thinking that would guide it, setting off a debate among ethicists, psychologists and theologians over how this new science might change the world."

Such a public debate is both healthy and necessary. Significantly, the secular humanist voice has not been heard, yet humanists have been pondering the import of cloning for several decades. Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991), one of Free Inquiry's founding editors and a pioneer in the field of biomedical ethics, had foreseen the ethical dilemmas that would arise once cloning of higher mammals became truly feasible. Unlike the tenets of many religious teachings, which hold that it is wrong to tinker with nature, humanism holds that acts should be judged according to how they affect either positively or negatively the general welfare of the community. In his 1988 book The Ethics of Genetic Control (Prometheus Books), a collection of essays originally written in the early 1970s, Fletcher wrote that:

We now understand how to produce by "cloning" a new individual from a body cell - either male or female. The ancient Israelite Abraham laughed at the suggestion that he at one hundred and his wife at ninety could produce a child. She did it by a miracle or divine favor, in the Genesis story, but nowadays, as we shall see, it could be managed in a number of different ways, without any supernatural assists. Even though some of this new capability is not yet in the clinic, the mere knowledge of it irreversibly alters our feelings, attitudes, and meanings. [pp. 10-11]

In light of the equally stunning recent announcement that a 63-year old woman, utilizing state-of-the-art scientific procedures, has given birth, Fletcher's reflections are particularly prescient.

It is fitting that the International Academy of Humanism (of which Fletcher was a member), a distinguished body of scientists, philosophers, artists, and social activists who share the humanist perspective, has issued a statement defending the need to continue research in cloning, in response to both governmental and religious objections. While there is still much that needs to be reflected upon regarding the impact of Wilmut's breakthrough, attempts to halt all research due to theological caveats or political expediency should be strongly opposed. As the famed biologist and Humanist Laureate Richard Dawkins points out in his article in this issue of Free Inquiry, cloning is sure to have both good and bad consequences, but reflexive hysteria and dogmatic religious restrictions are unlikely to further the needed discussion.

Unlike those who look upon cloning with fear and trembling, humanists are interested in exploring how Wilmut's startling innovation might benefit humankind. In the debate over ethics, one should not forget to credit Wilmut and his team for their outstanding contribution to scientific knowledge. The following articles (including some excerpts from Fletcher's work), are offered as a response from the humanist community to this important topic.

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This page was last updated 02/13/2004

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