A GATHERING of the World Economic Forum in Davos several years
ago, Nobel laureate James Watson, whose work on DNA did much to
advance the biotechnology revolution, expressed optimism that
human society would never clone human beings because of the
would be no "boys from Brazil," he said. The Boys
From Brazil was the title of a book published in the early
1970s as a science-fiction thriller by Ira Levin. In the book,
and in a subsequent movie that starred Gregory Peck, Sir
Laurence Olivier and James Mason, a Nazi doctor deep in the
Amazon jungle, Josef Mengele, plans to breed dozens of Adolf
Hitlers, cloned from the original, to achieve Nazi world
book succeeded in raising fears that scientific knowledge could
be employed for evil purposes or, more benignly, to breed, say,
subhumans with limited intelligence to perform menial chores.
today's world, this remains science fiction. We simply don't
know how to do such things, even if we wanted to. But the
opportunistic announcement by a small U.S. company, Advanced
Cell Technology Inc., that it had cloned human embryos has
raised anew societal concerns over the power of humans to alter
life forms, and precipitated panic calls to ban all such
Minister Jean Chrétien, for example, has promised all such
activity will be banned in Canada.
it's important to gain a better understanding of what is at
stake, and to distinguish science from science fiction.
many respects, we have been cloning or altering life forms for
many years -- altering plant life and many forms of insect and
animal life. So society is faced with deciding why it is all
right to breed new forms of cattle or dogs, but not all right to
tamper with humans.
raises a fundamental divide between theologians, who see human
beings as distinct moral creatures quite different from any
other species of life, and scientists, who see humans as just
one of many forms of biological existence. Indeed, perhaps the
greatest change in understanding over the past 50 to 100 years
is the recognition of the biological link between humans and
other forms of life. The fact that we have almost all the same
genes as an earthworm underlines this point. This debate has the
most profound implications for society.
is another reason for public concern and that is a sense of
helplessness on the part of ordinary citizens who feel they lack
the knowledge that scientists possess and fear that scientists
are doing things in secret that they do not have the right to do
on their own. This divide between ordinary citizens and
scientists has to be bridged.
there is a justifiable concern that companies such as Advanced
Cell Technology want to gain powerful patents that would allow
them to control what should be public goods, thereby gaining the
potential to earn billions of dollars in the process.
there is another side to all of this, which is the potential to
develop new medical techniques that could improve the lives of
millions of people who suffer from ailments such as diabetes,
Parkinson's disease, heart diseases and Alzheimer's. Should
people be denied the opportunity to live better lives?
looking at how to address conflicting concerns, we need to
distinguish between the use of cloning to reproduce human beings
and the use of cloning to produce embryos to gain stem cells to
would reassure many if the reproductive cloning of complete
humans, or genetic intervention to design children, was banned.
even if countries such as Canada and the United States did so,
this would not prevent maverick scientists from establishing
clinics in other parts of the world where our concerns are not
more immediate issue is the production of human embryos to
produce stem cells that can be used to repair damaged tissue
from heart disease or to deal with diseases such as diabetes or
Parkinson's. The British have opted for a process that permits
therapeutic cloning under regulated conditions, though the
courts have forced the government to rewrite the legislation.
For its part, the Bush administration wants to ban research of
rushing to emulate the United States, Canada should look more
carefully at the reasons why Britain decided against banning
the medical gains are potentially so great, on balance it would
make more sense to permit and regulate such research if it means
that millions of people would be able to live healthier and