Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World.
By Lee M. Silver. 315 pp. New York: Avon Books. $25.
Last October, just before Halloween, The Sunday Times of London ran one
of the best over-the-top horror stories of 1997. The paper reported that
a University of Bath biologist had created in a laboratory dish living,
wriggling tadpoles -- with no heads! ''Headless frog opens way for human
organ factory,'' The Times headline declared. The idea was that platoons
of headless human clones could be created to provide a steady supply of
fresh, healthy livers, kidneys, hearts and lungs for transplant. (Count
on this to be discovered by agents Mulder and Scully on ''The X-Files''
before the season is out.)
The story drew a quick reaction from Arthur Caplan, director of the Center
for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, and J. Craig Venter, head
of the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md. In a letter to
the journal Science, they dismissed the speculation as ''absurd on both
scientific and moral grounds.'' First, they said, keeping headless clones
alive until adulthood without brains to orchestrate bodily functions ''would
be a virtually impossible task.'' On the moral question they had no doubts:
cloning headless humans ''would not be an acceptable use of genetic sciences.''
Why? Because it ''would cheapen respect for the human image and form''
and would ''surely be an impermissible act of creating and sacrificing
potential humans solely for the benefit of others.''
Caplan and Venter were struggling, along with many other ethicists and
scientists, to elaborate an ethics in an area where there is little precedent
to guide them. Few of history's great moral philosophers took a stand one
way or the other on headless tadpoles. Nor did they consider the ethics
of cloning humans, or the issues raised by surrogate motherhood, frozen
embryos, sperm donors or the genetic enhancement of human beings. Until
a short time ago, who could have imagined such things? In their letter,
Caplan and Venter urged that ''ridiculous'' questions concerning headless
clones be dismissed so scientists and ethicists can focus on more pressing
issues, such as whether DNA testing could threaten privacy, job security
or access to health care.
Lee M. Silver, the author of ''Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a
Brave New World,'' takes a different view. No question is too speculative,
remote or absurd for Silver, a Princeton University biologist and geneticist
who teaches bioethics. He entertains even the wildest and most speculative
notions because -- as he argues persuasively -- the future is already here.
Many genetic and reproductive manipulations that seem to be science fiction
are far closer to reality than we recognize.
Headless clones are not among the wonders we are likely to see in the
next few years, but the question they raise --whether human beings ought
to be produced to donate organs -- is extremely relevant, because, as Silver
points out, it has already been done. In 1988, Anissa Ayala, a high school
sophomore in suburban Los Angeles, was diagnosed with myelogenous leukemia.
Her only hope of survival was a bone-marrow transplant, but a two-year
nationwide search for a compatible donor was unsuccessful. So Anissa's
parents made the decision to have another child, who, they fervently hoped,
could become the donor they sought. The odds were against them; there was
only a 25-percent chance that the child's bone marrow would be compatible.
Anissa's mother, Mary, 42, became pregnant. Amniocentesis showed the fetus
was indeed compatible. The child was born in 1990, and the transplant was
done 14 months later. It worked. Five years later, Anissa was still cancer-free.
For the first time on record, a human being had been deliberately ''produced''
to serve as a donor.
That is only one of many brave new scenarios Silver discusses in ''Remaking
Eden.'' He raises the possibility that a lesbian couple might have a child
that is genetically related to both of them, through a process known as
embryo fusion. He talks about ''the Michael Jordan scenario,'' in which
a nurse might surreptitiously steal a few drops of blood from Michael Jordan
during a routine physical and sell it on the black market to be used in
cloning. He explains the mechanics of fetal matches, in which immature
eggs and sperm progenitors would be removed from aborted or miscarried
fetuses to create children whose parents were never born. And he describes
the way parents might sit at a computer and click through a series of genetic
menus as they choose the characteristics they want for their children.
Midway through the book, as Silver is riffing on these fascinating prospects,
a disturbing message becomes clear. Nearly every tale ends with the same
punch line: the technology to do this is already in hand. Almost everything
needed to accomplish these feats has already been done in mice or other
laboratory animals, and Silver reminds us that in the early days of gestation
a mouse embryo is nearly indistinguishable from a human one.
If that isn't provocative enough, he argues that most ethical debates
over genetic enhancement and reproduction will become moot, because parents
will demand these new techniques and government will be powerless to intervene.
According to Silver, that's where Aldous Huxley got it wrong. In ''Brave
New World,'' Huxley describes state-run human hatcheries where embryos
are produced according to government specifications. But that's not the
way it will happen, Silver says. ''What Huxley failed to understand, or
refused to accept, was the driving force behind babymaking. It is individuals
and couples who want to reproduce themselves in their own images.''
Indeed, he continues, when the right of parents ''to control every other
aspect of their children's lives'' is widely accepted, it is hard to argue
against allowing them to shape their children's genetics. For example,
it might, in fact, be unethical to deny parents the opportunity to eliminate
disease genes in their children. In one of Silver's Princeton classes,
90 percent of the students said they were opposed to the use of genetic
engineering on their children for any reason. When asked about a hypothetical
gene enhancement that could prevent AIDS infection, half of them changed
But couldn't the government, or the courts, simply pass laws or issue
rulings that genetic enhancement or other manipulations are against the
law? They can try, says Silver, as they did with surrogate motherhood.
When a New Jersey court ruled in the Baby M case in 1988 that surrogacy
contracts were illegal and unenforceable, a number of states passed laws
saying the same thing, and the era of surrogacy was supposed to be over.
But Silver cruises the World Wide Web and finds that ''the American surrogacy
industry is booming.'' In those states that allow surrogacy, the trade
is brisk. ''What the brief history of surrogacy tells us is that Americans
will not be hindered by ethical uncertainty, state-specific injunctions
or high costs in their drive to gain access'' to new reproductive technologies.
Silver tries to find a reason that we should rage against this, and he
comes up mostly empty. He finds dizzying layers of contradiction in most
religious and ethical arguments against one or another reproductive or
genetic technology. Many of the arguments are based on the notion that
there is a ''specialness'' about human reproduction or human embryos or
human life. Galileo once argued that the earth was not the center of the
universe; Silver argues that human reproduction does not belong at the
center of the biological universe. Referring to a technique -- already
accomplished with mice -- that could lead to the production of human sperm
in, say, the testes of a pig, Silver says: ''The 'specialness of humanity'
has been challenged, and it's been found wanting. . . . There is nothing
special about human reproduction.''
The thing that most concerns him is the possible effect of all this genetic
and reproductive cookery on society at large. There is reason to fear that
the gap between rich and poor could grow larger as these expensive technologies
are employed only by the well-to-do. Silver even fantasizes about a distant
future in which the upper classes have undergone so much genetic tinkering
over so many generations that they have become unable to mate with members
of other classes. They have, in effect, become a different species.
But should genetic enhancement be denied on those grounds? Wealthy parents
can already offer their children a $100,000 Ivy League education that is
denied to many poorer children. Wealthy parents can afford all sorts of
other environmental enhancements, too, such as piano lessons and the best
medical care. So why shouldn't they be allowed to enhance their children's
genetics? As Silver points out, both contribute to a child's chances of
success, though neither is a guarantee.
Silver offers one simple suggestion as a guideline for the use of these
new technologies. There are ''many paths that can be followed to reach
the goal of having a child,'' he writes. And the validity of any of these
paths should be judged ''not by their intrinsic nature, but by the love
that a parent gives to the child after she or he is born.'' Whether or
not we can produce humans without heads, Silver seems to be saying, we
ought be sure they have hearts.
Paul Raeburn is a senior editor at Business Week and the author of ''Mars:
Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet,'' which will be published in
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