One of these fanatics will clone a baby

Daily Telegraph (England), Dec. 29, 2002 (Opinion)
By Alasdair Palmer

She’s called Eve. She was born to a 31-year-old woman. And she is, according to Brigitte Boisselier, the world’s first cloned baby.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons for being sceptical about Miss Boisselier’s claim. One is that she is a member of the Raelians, a stupefying stupid sect, whose founder claims to have been abducted by aliens in 1973. According to Claude Vorilhon, they spoke perfect French, explained that the word “yahweh” had been been mistranslated in the Bible as “God” when it actually means “alien”, and insisted that they had originally created human beings by cloning themselves.

Another reason is that Miss Boisselier has a record of being less than wholly honest about her own scientific achievements. A couple of years ago, for instance, she took several hundred thousand dollars from Mark Hunt, an American who wanted to clone his dead 10-month-old son. Before the lab she set up with Mr Hunt’s money was shut down, Miss Boisselier claimed repeatedly that she was on the verge of creating “the first human clone”.

In fact, according to Mr Hunt, the closest she got was to manipulate, unsuccessfully, a few cow cells. Again, a month prior to the alleged birth of Eve, she promised that DNA samples would be made available “immediately the child was born” so as to enable independent scientists to verify that the baby had indeed been cloned from her mother. No such samples have been provided – Miss Boisselier has quietly postponed that dreadful moment. She now says that samples “should be available within 10 days”.

And yet, despite her fantasies and her tendency to fraud, it is not absolutely impossible that Miss Boisselier is telling the truth. Cloning by single nuclear transfer, the method she claims to have used, is not a particularly complicated technology. It has been successfully used to produce hundreds of cloned animals since Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, was born more than five years ago.

Respectable scientists have not attempted to create a human child by cloning because of the near universal consensus among those who work in embryology that it would be unethical to do so. The risks of harm are simply too great to the child who would eventually be born and the scope for miscarriage appallingly high.

Cloning goes wrong for reasons that no one yet understands. But what is understood is that tiny copying errors which take place when a clone embryo develops can have horrendous consequences. Not all cloned animals develop serious defects – but a high proportion do. The problems range from a malfunctioning heart and lungs to an immune system which doesn’t work properly. In human beings, the defects would almost certainly include serious mental health problems.

There is, moreover, the practical difficulty of getting hold of a sufficiently large number of human eggs. Cloning has an enormously high attrition rate. It took 276 failed attempts at implanting DNA material into a sheep egg before Dolly was born. No other laboratory since has had a success rate much higher than one cloned birth in a hundred attempts. It is doubtful that Miss Boisselier could get hold of the quantity of human eggs she would need in order to have a chance of producing just one successful birth – never mind the five that she claims will be born in the next two months.

And yet . . . it remains the case that Miss Boisselier may be telling the truth, and she has produced the first cloned baby. The technical obstacles, though considerable, are not insurmountable. The lunatic Raelians just might have got lucky. It is a truly awful possibility: that a giant leap forward in mankind’s technological history, the creation of human life in a scientific laboratory, should be achieved by a sect of evident nutters who believe in alien abduction. It is as if North Korea had not merely tried to build a nuclear bomb, but had been the first nation on earth successfully to detonate one.

In our collective imagination, the dangerous possibilities of cloning are derived from fantasies such as the film The Boys from Brazil, in which a series of Hitlers is cloned from the original dictator by Dr Mengele, who then sends them out to dominate the world. In fact, the risks of cloning are much more mundane: they consist in the production of mangled and deformed babies, and of children who develop horrible and incurable diseases as they begin to grow up. That is the most likely outcome of Miss Boisselier’s experiments, and it is why most countries with the technical capacity to clone a human baby have either outlawed the procedure or have legislation pending that will do so.

It is not, however, possible for laboratories that can produce clones to be policed across the globe, any more than it is possible to shut down every laboratory that could produce chemical weapons. We have as a consequence to rely on the good sense and the ethical judgement of individual scientists. Unfortunately, and regardless of whether she is lying or telling the truth about the genesis of Eve, Miss Boisselier shows that there are scientists who respect none of these constraints, and who are willing to try to produce a human clone. Sooner or later, one of them will succeed.

One aspect of the tragedy is that some aspects of cloning technology, in the right hands, have enormous potential for good. The cloning of specific parts of human tissue – individual organs or parts of the nervous system, as opposed to the cloning of a whole human baby – offers the hope of astonishing cures for otherwise fatal or debilitating diseases. Teams of scientists in Europe and America are working on the cloning of human tissue for that purpose, although they all recognise that the practical medical benefits are decades away. Those benefits may never materialise if justifiable revulsion against a cloned human baby who develops horrendous defects leads to overwhelming popular pressure for a total ban on all cloning research.

There is a visceral recoil from cloning which makes that a real possibility, for cloning threatens our conception of what it is to be human: it demonstrates that there is nothing more to a person than a collection of chemicals – chemicals that can be manipulated so as to develop into a living human individual in the laboratory. The wonder of reproduction and the mystery of the human soul are reduced to the antiseptic contents of a test tube. It is profoundly disturbing. That power to create human life feels like power which only a god could have. Like the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, it is a power that some find impossible to resist. If Miss Boisselier is telling the truth, humanity may come to regret the creation of Eve.

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