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What do George Lucas, Ian Wilmut, and Shoukhrat Mitalipov—a filmmaker, an embryologist, and a biologist—have in common? Each of them created a clone. Star Wars fans are familiar with the fictional Clone Troopers from Episode II (2002), who, as the storyline goes, evolved into the more familiar Storm Troopers in Lucas's original 1977 movie. The other two created real-life clones: Dolly the cloned sheep brought fame to British embryologist Wilmut in 1996, and just two years ago, Mitalipov announced that his team had successfully cloned a human embryo and harvested its stem cells,1 destroying the embryos in the process. Mitalipov's news came after a comparative lull in public attention to human cloning. It was not always thus.
While cloning research seems to have been marching inexorably ahead, indifferent to ethical concerns, both popular and high art have been more keenly attuned to the problems, producing works that reflect our underlying ill ease with attempts to clone human beings. A few examples from the film world will illustrate this.
In the late 1970s, a novel and subsequent movie called The Boys from Brazil came out, whose plot centers around 94 boys who had been cloned from Hitler's DNA and sent out to live with families similar to that of Hitler's. A more recent film, The 6th Day (2000), features Arnold Schwarzenegger as a man who encounters a clone of himself, a startling discovery not least because human cloning, though feasible, is illegal. The plot of The Island, released in 2005, revolves around human clones purchased as insurance policies by wealthy people against the day they might need the clones' organs or other body parts for transplant.
These Hollywood creations tapped into genuine fears that human cloning was on the horizon, and they used fast-action plots and top-billing stars to accentuate the moral hazards. Could Hollywood have helped solidify opposition to human cloning?
The Great Debate That Wasn't
Until recently, there has in fact been a worldwide consensus against human cloning, with attempts being made to enshrine this moral conclusion in law. On July 31, 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban all forms of human cloning, and a similar ban was being considered by the Senate, but its momentum was derailed by the events of 9/11. Although subsequent -attempts were made to reintroduce the ban in Congress, and several states passed their own cloning bans, the issue largely fell out of public view and legislative concern. The United Nations did adopt a resolution banning human cloning in 2005, but it was non-binding.
One might have expected Mitalipov's announcement in early 2013 to revive the conversation; indeed, he and other commentators suggested that "the great cloning debate is about to begin."2 But the noise level of the discussion that ensued wouldn't have awakened a sleeping baby. That year, although we were riveted by stories on the spread of Ebola, the rise of ISIS, and the Russian incursion into Ukraine, our attention was also consumed by the ice bucket challenge, celebrity deaths, and Miley Cyrus's lewd stunt at the MTV Video Music Awards. In hindsight, it appears that we regarded human cloning as a greater moral hazard while it was still only a theoretical possibility; now that the barrier has been breached, we seem to have tacitly accepted it as an inevitability.
Attention to human cloning of embryos has declined for another reason: the remarkable successes of iPSC (induced pluripotent stem cell) research. Seeking an alternative to embryo-destructive research, Shinya Yamanaka developed a method to "rewind" adult cells, essentially turning them back into pluripotent stem cells. Others have improved the efficiency and success rate of creating iPSCs, leading to their widespread use in both medical treatment and further research, and thus to the virtual abandonment of human embryonic stem-cell research. These successes certainly undermine the claim that human cloning is essential for therapeutic research.
Yet another reason may explain the absence of "the great cloning debate": carving out an exception for research. There are two goals for cloning. In therapeutic cloning—more properly called experimental or research cloning—embryos are created for the purpose of extracting their stem cells for use in research. Such embryos are destroyed before they reach the age of fourteen days. In reproductive, or live birth, cloning, the intent is to produce a viable child. The methods of producing the cloned embryos are identical, but the contrasting purposes mean drastically different outcomes for the embryos. While opposition to reproductive cloning remains firm (and rightly so), there is a worrying decline of opposition to experimental cloning.
Whether by design, neglect, or sloppy reporting, news stories often obscure what is really taking place with cloning research. Reporters may use terms such as "transfer of genetic material," "enucleation and nuclear transfer," or "nuclear replacement," without mentioning "cloning" even once. Or they may claim that "nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells" is not cloning, since no baby will be born, but simply a technique to facilitate the production of patient-specific stem-cell lines. Yet each of these terms, along with the more familiar "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (SCNT), describes the cloning process. As George Orwell presciently pointed out in 1984, language has the power to mask the truth. When viewed under a microscope, the organism created by SCNT is indistinguishable from an embryo created by the old-fashioned union of sperm and egg. The former is treated as research material, while the latter is welcomed as a child.
Still Time to Act
The good news is that developments in human cloning are moving slowly, which allows time for serious moral discussions, conclusions, and policy changes to take place. Mitalipov's 2013 report has been followed by only two other announcements. In April 2014, researchers from the U.S. and Hebrew University reported creating disease-specific embryonic stem-cell lines via SCNT.3 And in August of that year, a team at Advanced Cell Technology declared that they had successfully adapted the same technique as Mitalipov's group to clone embryos using skin cells from two adult males rather than a fetus or infant, and deriving stem cells from two of the embryos.4
Thus, cloning has become closely linked to embryonic stem-cell research. But rather than extracting stem cells from embryos "left over" from IVF procedures, cloners create their own embryos for research, using enucleated human eggs obtained from donor women. This procedure raises another set of concerns. The healthy young donors are subjected to injections of synthetic hormones to stimulate overproduction of eggs, which is not only uncomfortable but also can cause permanent health damage. It is estimated that eggs from 19 to 190 million women would be needed to cure diabetes alone. Since women, understandably, are not volunteering in sufficient numbers, researchers and professional societies have begun to advocate that egg donors be compensated, a proposal that crosses yet another ethical line.
So far, Hollywood movies have featured already-born clones to dramatic effect. What is needed now is a more sophisticated, more nuanced critique of the harms of cloning embryos for research. With live-birth cloning, the embryo has at least some chance of survival. Research cloning puts that possibility at zero. Perhaps film can succeed where bioethics discussions have failed, recapturing our moral imagination and sounding the opening bell of "the great cloning debate." •
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