An Orphan Black Dilemma
May 30, 2013

An Orphan Black Dilemma

Dolly the cloned sheep made her debut as the world’s first successfully cloned animal 17 years ago. CNN Health reports that scientists have used that same technique (sort of) to clone human embryonic stem cells.

CNN does a great job of running down the history of human cloning attempts, and the success, failures, and hoaxes that have happened, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here. Let’s stipulate that this is a great thing for science and health research. Embryonic stem cells can be used to create new organs, or nerves; they can be used to create targeted genetic therapies for diseases or to treat the diseases directly by regenerating cells.

One would think that laboratory created stem cells would calm the ethical debate over how to procure such material, as well. And for me, it does. But cloning human cells does seem to raise a host of other ethical considerations. So I started doing a little research.

I thought there was a ban on cloning humans in the US. Turns out, no, there isn’t. The library staff at Michigan State has put together a really informative and helpful page about cloning laws that lays it all out.

On the federal level in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently has jurisdiction over cloning, mostly because of the possibility Dolly raised for cloning food animals. As redOrbit has reported before, many scientists have been working on cloning meat and dairy animals for commercial use. They are finding no difference in nutritional content, or harmful side effects of cloned cattle, or other animals. But where does that leave us with cloning humans?

There is no policy against, or even about, cloning humans on the federal level in the United States. Yep, you heard that right. The National Institutes of Health Embryo Research Panel has developed a science policy report, but that’s just a “hey, this is what we think the government should do in respect to cloning.” It ISN’T a law. And all the hoopla over using embryonic stem cells for research? All that led to was the federal government restricting federal funding to such research, not a banning of it, or any other type of human cloning.

There have been several attempts by congress to ban cloning, all of which seem to originate in the House and get shot down by the Senate. Check out the MSU page, they have laid it all out in black and white.  The only laws currently on the books are state laws, so they are a mishmash of policy. What is illegal in one state is only regulated in another and is completely ignored in another. So, the scientist only needs to shop around for a state who will allow his particular brand of research to know where to work.

Books, movies and TV shows have been exploring the ethics of cloning for a long time. From the 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H.G. Wells, to the recent BBC America show, Orphan Black, we have been fascinated with the idea that humans and animals could be cloned, spliced, improved, reinvented, combined and copied. My favorites are the movie The Island and the TV show Orphan Black.

In The Island, the clones are gestated wholly by machines in a factory like setting. They are kept at an intellectual and emotional level of pre-adolescence, and they are exact DNA-perfect replicas of the humans they are supposed to be living organ and tissue and infant factories for. This movie raises several ethical questions that I think need to be addressed before we head off into full scale human cloning. Is it ethically sound to create a whole human for the purpose of extending the life of the “original?”  Is it ethically sound to make cloned organs a business venture, insuring that only the wealthy have access to this technology? Would a cloned human be “human” and accorded all the rights of the original? What are the moral and ethical implications of creating life in a laboratory?

We’ve been fighting that last one for a while, since the advent of “test-tube” babies. Louise Joy Brown, born July 25, 1978, was the first such baby. Today, millions of couples are helped through the technology started here, with In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) becoming the infertility technique of choice today. In the 70s, however, there was a huge debate over the ethics of creating life in a laboratory. Today, that debate has changed to designer babies.

Orphan Black adds a few twists to the ethical considerations. In the show, 9 women are clones of each other who were implanted into host mothers using IVF. They have lived different lives, in different countries, yet they are seemingly identical. The writers of this show have been keeping up with current technology though, as the women have had biomarkers engineered into them to differentiate them to their creators. One of the biggest ethical questions this show raises is what are the legal ramifications of having identical humans running around?

I think the new breakthrough, creating embryonic stem cells lines, is a fabulous boon for the medical and scientific community. I worry, though, that our ability to create is outstripping our ability to think through the ethical ramifications of what we are creating.

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