Column: License to clone

On Tuesday, the government across the pond gave the creator of Dolly the Sheep a cloning license for medical research. Except this time, it’s a license to clone human cells.

The British Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority approved the license for Ian Wilmut, who led the team that created Dolly at Scotland’s Roslin Institute in 1996. Euphemistically called “therapeutic cloning” – because it does not result in a live healthy baby – Wilmut plans to use the license to study how nerve cells go awry to cause motor neuron disease. Essentially, Wilmut plans to clone cells from patients, derive blank-slate stem cells from the cloned embryo, make them develop into nerve cells and compare their development with nerve cells derived from healthy embryos.

This was going to happen sooner or later. Due to the immense amount of opposition from anti-abortionists, who say that the work – similar to some kinds of stem cell research – destroys human embryos, it’s surprising this license was granted. There is, however, nothing wrong with cloning for medical purposes as long as it doesn’t lead to entire human beings being created and sent out into the world.

This kind of research has obvious advantages – it will help gene therapy research as well as help provide solutions for those with debilitating diseases that science has yet to understand because of the nature of those diseases. Motor neuron disease has always been difficult to fathom because the nerves responsible are buried deep in the brain. This research gives scientists a chance to break through that barrier.

The most important issue surrounding this license is that the cells cloned are replicas of the patient’s own. The resulting embryo is a clone of the patient, and the cells taken from the embryo are used to help the patient. There is nothing wrong with cloning your own cells to regenerate yourself. In the future, it should become a matter of individual choice as opposed to a government regulation. After all, it makes more sense than keeping an embryo frozen for six months to be later implanted in someone’s womb.

But this license shouldn’t lead to a slippery slope towards granting licenses to clone human beings for the sake of it. One of the biggest problems with that would be a “culture of shopping.” Before you know it, egotistical parents would be asking for their perfect hair and abs to be cloned and transferred to their baby. Those with bigger egos would still be asking for children exactly like themselves – faces, body and all.

Furthermore, the scientific community needs to draw the line at assisting patients. It is one thing to cure children with Down syndrome or find the cure for Alzheimer’s. It is quite another to help someone live forever through continuous cloning. The inalienable right to live should be guaranteed to all, but human immortality was never part of the bargain.