Activist hails report, sees bright future for copied human beings
Times Colonist (Canada), Dec. 28, 2002
Kate Jaimet, Southam Newspapers
OTTAWA — Imagine giving birth to a second Michael Jordan.
Or having a baby with your own genes, but not your partner’s, to avoid future child custody battles.
Imagine bearing an identical twin of your own mother.
Randy Wicker, an American antique dealer, cloning advocate, gay rights activist, and founder of the 30-member strong New York-based Clone Rights United Front, sees all of these possibilities and more for the future of clone reproduction.
Yes, he acknowledges, cloning today is expensive, experimental and dangerous — and clone doctors are likely to become predatory opportunists, taking advantage of infertile people’s desire for a child — but if and when cloning ever becomes mainstream, it will give children to the childless and bring human choice into the random business of nature.
“I think cloning is going to make for much stronger families, better relationships between parents and children,” Wicker said in a telephone interview from New York. “There’s going to be a communication there that’s going to be very unique, and some people are going to find very attractive.”
Wicker, a 65-year-old man who describes himself as an “early gay rights activist,” has no scientific background, but he became interested in the cloning debate when he saw American conservatives and fundamentalist Christians lining up against the new technology.
“They were the same people I had fought all my life,” Wicker said.
Instead of taking the stance that cloning was fundamentally wrong, Wicker asked himself: why shouldn’t people be able to clone themselves?
A common argument against human cloning is that a very large number of animal clones are born with birth defects, and to knowingly inflict that on a human being would be unethical.
“I’m a sort of libertarian,” Wicker counters. “I believe that if people really understand they’re taking a long shot . . . and if they want to take that chance, they have the right to make that decision.”
Other cloning advocates, like Nick Bostrom, a philosophy lecturer at Yale University, aren’t quite as tolerant of the idea of allowing prospective clone-parents to take risks with their offspring’s health.
“Cloning somebody right now is irresponsible because we haven’t perfected the technology yet,” Bostrom said. But, he added: “Once it’s safe and reliable, I see this as just one more way in which people can have children. There are childless people who are pining for their own children.”
What sort of prospective parents would find cloning their reproductive method of choice? There is the obvious case of infertile couples, who currently can pay between $20,000 and $100,000 US for successful in vitro fertilization, Wicker said.
That includes men, and especially women, who through choice or chance miss bearing children in their prime reproductive years and want to start a family late in life.
“It restores fertility to everyone, whether they’re one year old or 100 years old,” Wicker said.
But how about the woman who just doesn’t want to deal with the inconvenience of a second parent? Wicker said he has a friend in that situation. “She said: ‘I have seen too many messy divorces and too many messy custody fights. I just want to have a child that’s mine.’ “
Or what about the woman who figures that men are OK to sleep with, but a clone of herself would be a lot easier to raise than a child formed by random genetic combination?
“You’d have such an advantage if you have a child and it’s your later-born twin,” Wicker said. “Even though that’s a totally unique and different person, identical twins have an intuitive feeling about each other. It’s a very special, special relationship.”
There are parents who have lost children in accidents and see cloning as the closest thing to bringing a dead person back to life, a sentiment that Bostrom calls “misguided,” since even making an identical twin clone does not re-create the same person.
And then there are parents — the few, the rich, the star-struck — who would want to bear the clone of a sports hero, scientific genius or movie actor.
“It should be down to the individual would-be parents to decide where they get the DNA for their children,” Bostrom commented. “I really don’t think it’s going to be a great harm to society if a few people decide to have clones of people they admire.”
Wicker is even more enthusiastic about the idea, although cautioning that reproducing someone’s genes will not necessarily guarantee brilliance.
“I think we’re going to reach the point, if cloning becomes really practical and viable, when people are going to demand people like Einstein, as long as they’re willing that their genotype be given another go-around,” he said.
Wicker believes that cloning, which is likely to be at least as expensive as in-vitro fertilization, will never replace free, old-fashioned sex as a method of reproduction.
But Bostrom sees cloning as one step along a path that will lead to technologically enhanced humans of the future: humans who can pick and choose genes for their unconceived children, and even transfer their own thoughts, memories and experiences into the brains of clones.
“It looks very naive to believe the human condition as we now know it will continue indefinitely into the future.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT HUMAN CLONING
Q: How is a clone produced?
A: The process sounds simple, but is actually difficult to execute. Scientists must first harvest an unfertilized egg from a female donor, remove its genetic material and replace that material with new DNA from a cell of the animal to be cloned. Under the proper conditions, the egg divides into new cells, ultimately growing into a genetically identical copy of the DNA donor.
Q: What’s the background of the group claiming to have produced a human clone?
A: The organization is called Clonaid and is affiliated with a religious sect — the Raelian movement — whose founder believes life on Earth was created by extraterrestrials. While the premise may sound fantastic, it is technically possible Clonaid produced a clone if it hired the right scientists.
Q: How will the public know if Clonaid is telling the truth?
A: Clonaid has promised to allow outside DNA experts conduct tests to prove their claim. Most likely, forensic experts would use the same methods commonly used to identify bodies. If so, the scientists will either draw blood from both mother and baby or swab the inside of their mouths to get DNA samples. If the baby is a clone, its DNA will be an identical match of the woman who was said to be cloned.
Q: What physical problems could a cloned baby develop?
A: Cloned mammals such as sheep and cattle have become obese and arthritic, and have shown signs of premature aging. Since a human clone has never before been born, it’s impossible to say for sure what difficulties one might have.
Q: Why would parents want a cloned child?
A: According to Clonaid, the mother of this particular baby chose the cloning process because her husband is infertile. The group says other clients are trying to have babies that will genetically match children they have already parented and lost.
THE FORENSIC CONNECTION
Clonaid says it will rely on outside forensic experts to do the DNA tests necessary to prove they have produced a clone.
Several experts said standard DNA profiling — the same tests used for forensic tasks like identifying a body — would be sufficient proof.
Most likely the experts would get the DNA from blood drawn from mother and baby or by scraping the roofs of their mouths.
If the baby is a clone, its DNA will match both the nuclear DNA and the mitochondrial DNA of the woman who was said to be cloned, experts say.
DNA in the cell’s nucleus is the kind that gets most public attention, because it is used in most forensic testing. It’s this nuclear DNA that is reproduced in cloning.
But human and animal cells also contain a second kind of DNA outside the nucleus. It resides in the mitochondria, the power plants of the cell.
Such testing should take about a week.
1952: Scientists demonstrate they can remove the nucleus from a frog egg, replace it with the nucleus of an embryonic frog cell, and get the egg to develop into a tadpole. This “nuclear transfer” transplants an animal’s genes to an egg. The tadpole is a clone of the embryo that donated its nucleus.
1975: Scientists get tadpoles after transferring cell nuclei from adult frogs.
1986: Sheep cloned by nuclear transfer from embryonic cells.
1997: Scientists reveal Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from cells of an adult animal.
1998: More than 50 mice reported cloned from a single adult mouse over several generations. Eight calves reported cloned from a single adult cow.
2000: Pigs and goats reported cloned from adult cells.
2001: Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., says it produced a six-cell cloned human embryo, in research aimed at harvesting stem cells.
2002: Rabbits and a kitten reported cloned from adult cells.
Dec. 27, 2002: Clonaid claims to produce first human clone, a baby girl.