Cloning and Ethical Concerns

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Most of us did enjoy & felt the rush of the adrenaline while going through the pages of 1976 thriller novel “The Boys from Brazil” by Ira Levin in which several replications of notorious Nazi leader Adolf Hitler are brought into life as clones in an attempt to revive the Nazi Movement. While the book fills one with awe, much intricacies come into play when cloning is debated over in scientific, religious, philosophical , moral, and political circles. Greek mythology depicts the tale of a Titan Prometheus, who stole the fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals. Scholars infer it arguably to be the first ever description of cloning in which fire was pilfered and replicated for the welfare of humanity. Prometheus, however subsequently got punished by Zeus, who tied him to a rock where a large eagle would eat away his liver. To add to his woes the liver would grow back everyday only to be eaten up again.

However the ‘sufferings’ for the act of doing modern day cloning by ‘mortals’ is very much open to debate. For the moment the balance is slightly tilted towards the pros. But how ethical is the manipulation of God’s laws or Nature’s at least, and to what extent, is a question to be paid heed to.

Cloning  in layman terms is the process of producing multiple copies of cell, tissue or organism.
Cloning as a term is generally used to refer Artificial Cloning, however human cloning also occurs naturally in context of identical twins where the fertilized cell divides and clones itself into multiple copies. The subsequent cells have the same genetic sequence and coding. The process of artificial cloning consists of breaking apart a single or multiple strands of desired DNA and gluing together in a desired sequence. The newly formed DNA sequence is inserted in the requisite cell. Finally the successfully transected cells are screened out. Thus, we see that cloning is a form of asexual reproduction. One fascinating point to ponder over is that cloning has been practiced in horticulture for hundreds of years but the word ‘cloning’ made news among common masses only in the year 1996 when Dolly a Finn ewe became the first mammal to be cloned . Although the task was extremely arduous and had minimal success rate per fertilized egg, it eventually gave high promise to research in human cloning.

Prior to fathoming the ethical aspect of human cloning let’s have a look at what Dr Ian Wilmut, the veterinary researcher at Roslin Institute who “engineered” Dolly’s birth had to say on cloning at the United States Congress:

“Cloning a mammal involves a high failure rate, since of his 277 “reconstructed” embryos, only 29 were implanted in ewes and only one(Dolly) developed successfully. “Similar experiments with humans would be totally unacceptable.” Wilmut concluded.

Apart from high failure rate it has also been observed that cloned animals are highly susceptible to physical deformities and common diseases in comparison to their parent counterparts. Even Dolly finally succumbed to death in the year 2003 at the age of six and a half years, whereas average life span of a sheep is ten years, due to lung infection prominent only in more senile sheep.
Some biologists have even drawn parallels from cloning results in animals and have hypothesized that human clones will need several surgeries to impart strength and “life” to their body joints and the signs of oldness will be visible in as early as the twenties.

Now religious groups, particularly Evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism, believe that a soul enters the body at the instant of conception, and that the fertilized ovum is in fact a human person with full human rights. Dividing that “baby” in half during an embryo cloning procedure would interfere with God’s intent. It is also human experimentation on live persons. The many cloned zygotes that died after a few cell divisions would be lost human beings, their loss is considered as serious as the death of a new born baby. The Islamic school too considers cloning as a violation of sanctity of human life. So we see Science & Theology confronting each other as usual. The ethical aspects of cloning are so difficult to construe that one is at fix while drawing a line between ethics and scientific progress. Although some ethical guidelines have been laid at the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (1997) , article 11 section C (Research on Human Genome) of which states that
“Practices which are contrary to human dignity, such as reproductive cloning of human beings, shall not be permitted. States and competent international organizations are invited to co-operate in identifying such practices and in taking, at national or international
level, the measures necessary to ensure that the principles set out in this Declaration are
respected.”

Hhowever it is up to each nation to determine what “amount” and extent of cloning is allowed for it’s society. So we often see policy makers, scientists and bioethics groups trying to take lead roles in discussions related to cloning.
Even if cloning is highly successful, on what grounds should human cloning be allowed?
Some argue that it will aid research in the field of organ implantations and genetic engineering and prove out to be a boon to infertile couples while others rebuke that such practices will only lead to promotion of baby designing  -where parents could choose what traits and features they prefer in their offspring and enhancement of human abilities. The whole concept of “human identity” will come under scanner.

Very interestingly revival of several extinct species using cloning is no more a biologist’s fantasy. A moderate success has  also been achieved in this arena with the cloned animals mostly dying within a short span of time. All it requires is a nearly perfect DNA which at times is extracted from frozen fossils or is replicated through a chain of biochemical reactions. Excited by such initial successes, tissue samples of several endangered species are being preserved in frozen environments. But even these acts of scientists are not being commended. Environmentalist argue that even if extinct species are revived healthily, they will pose a treat to the survival of contemporary species and habitats, also it would be next to impossible to teach them their natural instincts in the absence of their parents. Also the vitality of the offspring of the cloned species will be questionable. Moreover conservationist fear that if such experiments are successful to a reasonable extent, research in such sort of cloning will eat out major portion of funds which they get to conserve and save contemporary endangered species from various funding agencies and groups.

For the moment it seems that human cloning is a bit distant dream with so many ethical and moral implications but as research is surpassing greater and greater pinnacles and moral definitions of society are bound to change, lets see what time has in store for human cloning.

Rakesh Choudhary

[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vernhart/559206780/]

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Chetan Bhagat is a popular Indian writer. Born and brought up at Delhi, he studied Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute...

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