Biological boon or scary scourge

March 02, 1997


Staff Writer

When Boonsboro High School freshman Jesse Rohrer heard about the successful cloning of an adult sheep in Scotland he said he was "amazed."

But Rohrer, 14, a member of the Sharpsburg 4-H Club who helps out on his family's farm, also wondered if the breakthrough, announced a week ago, was just a fluke.

"I think maybe the cloned sheep was a freak," he said.

But philosophers, scientists, politicians, religious leaders and regular folks around the world are treating the news seriously.

Some are concerned that the same technology that cloned a farm animal could be used to clone humans.

Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., has called such research on humans "unethical and morally reprehensible," and urged Congress to ban federal funding of it.


President Clinton has asked a bioethics advisory commission to review the implications of this research on humans and issue a report within 90 days.

The issue is also generating much thoughtful concern in the Tri-State area.

Cloning a person would be a "direct attack on the intrinsic value of the human person," said George Winnes, a philosophy and ethics professor at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md.

"I think ethically it's wrong,'' he said. "I think the problem is it would be treating human beings as raw material ... something to be used as a means to some further end."

Winnes doesn't buy the argument that some human cloning research can be justified because it could benefit humanity. "It's not clear that you can do just anything to achieve good ends," he said.

Frostburg State University philosophy professor Thomas A. Mappes agrees.

"I'm convinced from my own ethical analysis ... that there is no justifiable use of cloning in regard to human beings," said Mappes, who has been tracking the ethics of reproductive technology for 15 years and is the co-editor of a textbook titled Biomedical Ethics.

Mappes said the main reason to clone a human would be because he or she excels in some area, such as athletics or some creative talent.

However, he said, a genetic clone would be a totally independent person, not an automaton.

More than DNA

"People are not reducible to their genetic heritage," Mappes said, but rather are formed by a complex interplay between genes, environment and personality.

For instance, if someone cloned Michael Jordan in order to create another great basketball player "you'd get someone who was the spitting image of Michael Jordan ... but maybe the person wouldn't have the desire to play and be physically active," Mappes said. "They might get this little kid who's not even interested in basketball."

A clone would be like an identical twin, and identical twins can turn out very differently, he said.

The main ethical argument against human cloning is that it would be "profoundly unfair" because of the "layer of expectation" placed on the clone, Mappes said.

Human cloning also raises the specter of copying the likes of such notorious people as Adolph Hitler "There are all kinds of abuse scenarios," he said.

For example, Mappes said, it would be "perverse" for parents to try to clone a child tragically killed in an automobile accident.

"It strikes me as disrespectful to the child,'' he said. "You would not create that child again. You would create someone else with a different personality."

One of the problems is the speed at which technology has advanced in recent years.

"It moves so fast our ability to handle the ethics of the situation lags behind ... We don't know what to do," said Richard Montgomery, chairman of the Physical and Life Sciences Division at Hagerstown Junior College.

Cloning "opens up a door that is so unexplored. It's just such a radical departure from the way things are," Montgomery said. "It is so radical it's mind-boggling."

One concern from a biological viewpoint is that genetic diversity has always been a hallmark of survival but cloning could imperil that, he said.

Down on the farm

The sheep cloning experiment does offer some interesting implications for agriculture and animal husbandry.

Mappes said the cloning of animals doesn't represent an ethical bind "if it's not wrong to raise and slaughter an animal" for food.

Animal breeders are already making embryo transfers to surrogate mothers and could use livestock cloning to improve milk production and fight infection, Washington County Extension Agent Don Schwartz said.

But even that prospect raises questions.

"If we can use it to clone good organisms, can we use it to clone bad? Even worse, do we start to play God?" Schwartz asked.

"Some folks are concerned where this is all going to go. It's the unknown," he said. "The technology will eventually become available. The question is how it will be used."

Jeff Poffenberger, Rohrer's stepfather, has about 60 sheep and lambs on the family farm outside Sharpsburg.

He said livestock cloning could be useful in starting a herd with the optimum positive characteristics.

"You could have consistent reproduction,'' Poffenberger said. "You would know exactly what you're going to get."

But cloning humans "is another question," he said.

The sheep experiment "was something great for the scientific world. I'm not sure how it's going to affect humanity," Poffenberger said. "All the facts aren't in."

Neither Poffenberger nor his stepson expect to see livestock cloning on family farms anytime soon because of the cost.

"In my lifetime, it will be way too expensive for me to afford," Rohrer predicted.

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