The cloning debate

The cloning debate. P M Bhargava & G Padmanabhan, Outlook, July 15, 2002.

After in vitro fertilisation and surrogate motherhood became realities in 1978, cloning was just a matter of time. Since Dolly’s “birth” in 1996, the debate on cloning has been dominated by questions about bio-ethics. Some fear, others fantasise about techno-eugenics producing Hitlers and Einsteins, Ramakrishnas and Mother Teresas. But cloning is not all about identical humans or animals. There is also therapeutic cloning that promises—through development of embryonic stem cells—cures for diseases. The starting material is predominantly the human/animal embryo. The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) allows the use of stem cells—cells that have the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and give rise to specialised cells—from foetuses less than two weeks old. The US Senate is still sitting over an Act which bans both forms. India has not seen much research work on cloning but the issues are under debate. S. Anand asked Pushpa M. Bhargava, founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, and G. Padmanabhan, former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, to reckon with the matter.

Q. Is the cloning debate rooted in the fear of defying nature?

P.M. Bhargava: The fear of nature is not so much a factor. Humanity has been defying nature all through history. It’s more religion that has a role to play in this. The objection of the Catholic church to family planning is a case in point.

G. Padmanabhan: The ethical/moral questions are not entirely rooted in religion. There is, however, a fear of defying nature. The technology available is far from perfect; but the basic question is: ‘cloning for what?’

Q. Is therapeutic cloning less dangerous?

Bhargava: No form or kind of cloning is dangerous. Therapeutic cloning can be extremely useful and is morally justified. There can be no objection to using stem cells from cloned foetuses of less than two weeks to generate organs for replacement. With reproductive cloning, the only purpose is to generate a replica. Genetics can only determine capabilities; the abilities of the clone will depend on a lot else.

Padmanabhan: Imagine, through therapeutic cloning, your kidney or any other tissue being available in the freezer for transplantation! If cloning becomes a reality, won’t poor women be exploited for egg donation as with unwitting kidney donors? Wouldn’t fertility clinics be used for making human embryos?

Q. Can cloning of animals go on?

Bhargava: Ian Wilmut says every cloned animal is genetically and physically defective. But we don’t have enough data to back that claim. Besides, it may not matter for some purposes, say for producing cheap drugs from milk. The fear of cloning Frankenstein’s Monsters is totally unreal.

Padmanabhan: Many cloned animals are not normal. This could owe to imperfect techniques or inherent differences between normal sperm-egg fusion and the artificial somatic cell nucleus developing in an egg cytoplasm. Rather than animals, I’d prefer plants as bio-reactors.

Q. In the wrong hands, can cloning be worse than A-bombs?

Bhargava: Anything can be dangerous in irresponsible hands. Even ordinary water, if injected intravenously by a stupid nurse, could kill a person. However, I would strongly oppose the use of babies born through cloning as sources for spare parts. Newborns are not foetuses. It is a distinction that is vital in this debate.

Padmanabhan: These visions are far-fetched. At best, ‘humanised’ pigs may be generated by introducing certain human genes so that the rejection of the animal heart during human transplantation does not take place. So there could be a farm of ‘humanised’ pigs. If animals can be source of food, how can they not be used as providers of health?

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