“Are human clones next?” asks New Scientist in response to this week’s news story that scientists in China have successfully cloned macaques. “It could be a step towards human cloning, but why would you do it?” ask Peter Andrews from the University of Sheffield in the New Scientist article, “In terms of human biology, it’s illegal to clone a human in Britain and many other countries, and I don’t think anyone would rationally want to do it.”
A decade ago, a ten day clergy course at Saint George’s House in Windsor Castle brought an encounter with an eminent biologist who later became a Nobel laureate. The Chatham House rules operative at the conference forbade the naming of a person; one could quote, but not attribute. The text read by participants had been Kazuo Ishigoro’s chilling novel Never Let Me Go, in which humans are cloned to provide spare parts and there was a sense of uneasiness about the subject.
The biologist lectured for an hour on human genetics and cloning. At times very technical, the lecture progressed to a point where it became disturbing. In the group sessions afterwards, those present were given five scenarios to consider. The first in the list of five was the use of IVF treatment to assist a couple to have a baby; the list then included progressively more complex interventions. The fifth scenario was that a couple had lost a child in a motor crash and there was the possibility of using genetic material from the dead child to clone it and thus recreate the child who had been lost.
Most present would probably have been of a fairly conservative and traditional frame of mind, however, a majority did approve of the use of IVF treatment. Support for intervention then declined scenario by scenario until there was barely any support for the idea of cloning a child.
The gathering reconvened for a plenary session and the biologist asked the clerical gathering for responses. “You are as conservative as ever”, he said. “You haven’t moved in years”.
Asked which interventions he would support, he responded, “All of them”.
What were his criteria for intervention?
“To relieve suffering”.
How did he describe “suffering”?
“Whatever the people affected believe suffering to be.”
The seasoned military padre beside me shifted uneasily on his seat and spoke up, “I have red hair. I was teased terribly as a child for having red hair. Do you think it would be appropriate to use genetic engineering if parents said they did not want a child with red hair?”
The scientist half shrugged and held his right hand open towards the questioner. “What do you think?”
When pressed, he responded in simple terms, “What can be done, will be done”. It was a stark, blunt statement of the reality of the world in which the prospective Nobel laureate lived. The clergy there might have wished it otherwise, ethicists might wish it otherwise; most scientists might wish it otherwise; but if someone pre-eminent in their field suggests that what can be done will be done, then legal frameworks and perceptions of what is “rational” seem unlikely to inhibit such developments.
The frightening tale told by Kazuo Ishigoro should be a forewarning of what might lie ahead.