February 22 marked the tenth anniversary of the biggest event in the history of biomedicine, the cloning of Dolly. Back in 1997, Ian Wilmut and his colleagues at Roslin Institute near Edinburgh announced that they had produced a lamb genetically identical to an adult ewe. This development ignited one of the biggest debates on the ethics of scientific research in decades. It also opened up the exciting new fields of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.
Curiously, the intensity of public interest caught scientists off guard, even the journal Nature which published Wilmut's research. While the media instantly focused on the possibility of armies of Adolf Hitlers, scientists saw Dolly merely as an incremental step forward on a paper published the year before.
Now that Dolly is just a stuffed sheep in a museum case, it's time to take stock. What ethical lessons have scientists in this field learned?
First, there is still no money in cloned animals. Sheep, mice, goats, pigs, cattle, rabbits, cats and even horses have been cloned. The US Food and Drug Administration recently declared cloned animals safe to eat, but the process is still inefficient and the meat would be astronomically expensive. Most cloned animals are stillborn, sick or deformed. Cloned humans would be, too. At the moment, human reproductive cloning is the stuff of science fiction.
But therapeutic cloning, which involves creating cloned human embryos, à la Dolly, promises to be very profitable. It could lead to cures, advances in drug testing and discoveries in genetic research.
Second, scientists have displayed an surprising capacity for stretching the truth. Over and over again some of them have succumbed to media adulation, intense competition for worldwide kudos and the prospect of bulging wallets. Wilmut himself was accused of hogging the credit for Dolly in a nasty court case. A number of researchers have been criticised for doing science by press release. The worst was the revelation that the first cloned human embryos and stem cell lines had been faked. Hwang Woo-suk, once the pin-up boy for Korean science, was an out-and-out fraud.
Third, there are smart, unscrupulous and loopy scientists out there. After Dolly, media hounds, religious nuts and medical entrepreneurs announced that they were ready to clone babies, never with peer review, normally in an undisclosed location always for boodles of cash. Richard Seed, Severino Antinori, Panos Zavos and Brigitte Boisseier and the Raelian cult have all had their 15 minutes of fame. And they have all been charlatans.
Fourth, most scientists working in the field will back human reproductive cloning if it ever become safe. Many prominent bioethicists have already endorsed it as an alternative to IVF. A manifesto released by the world's scientific academies has failed to rule it out. Nature acknowledged this in an editorial last week: "But as the science of epigenetics and of development inevitably progresses, those for whom cloning is the only means to bypass sterility or genetic disease, say, will increasingly demand its use. Unless there is some unknown fundamental biological obstacle, and given wholly positive ethical motivations, human reproductive cloning is an eventual certainty."
Fifth, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die opposition to unsafe reproductive cloning makes scientists sound ethical. But often this is the one and only ethically controversial procedure which they oppose. Where the "yuk factor" is less powerful — eg, genetic engineering, the use of human-animal hybrid embryos, markets in human eggs and sperm, the creation of embryos for research — critics are dismissed as Luddites or religious fundamentalists. These controversial developments are steadily gaining credibility in the media and in the courts, thanks to the influence of leading stem cell researchers.
Sixth, cloning scientists are still as obtuse as ever about the ethical implications of their work. Wilmut, for instance, published a book last year, After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning, and suggested to a journalist that it might be immoral not to genetically engineer children. He seems a bit miffed when people gag on the idea.
There is a desperate need for deeper ethical reflection upon the consequences of tinkering with human reproduction, lest we surrender our souls to technology. However, the scientific community, for the most part, has embraced a smorgasbord of utilitarianism (if enough people want it, why not?) and libertarianism (who are you to tell me what to do?). Leading scientific journals like Science, Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine shriek "Inquistion! Galileo! Taliban!" if the benefits of therapeutic cloning are questioned.
So where are scientists now, ethically, after a decade of debate? Not one step further than when we started. Instead of examining the social and moral implications of cloning technology, the scientific community has basically embraced the ethics of inevitability — it's impossible to put the genie back in the bottle, impossible to stop progress, impossible to thwart public demand for cures for dread diseases. It's all A-OK and let's get on with business.
There's no telling where this shallow pragmatism will take them — and us.
Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.