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Ian Wilmut: Human Cloner

How the man who created Dolly the sheep slid down the slippery slope to human reproductive cloning.

11:00 PM, Feb 15, 2005 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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IAN WILMUT, the co-creator of Dolly the Sheep, now intends to clone human life. This is quite a shift for Wilmut. When he and Keith Campbell entered the science pantheon with their announcement of the birth of Dolly, they forced the world to grapple with the question of whether it is moral to clone human life. But Wilmut claimed not to be interested in cloning humans. As described in his book, The Second Creation: Dolly and the Age of Biological Control, Wilmut wanted to use cloning technology to create genetically altered animals for use in deriving human medicines.

Thus, Dolly was a mere precursor to Polly, a "transgenic" sheep bio-engineered to possess a human gene. The hope for Polly was that she would lead to the creation of a herd whose milk could be "pharmed" for use in the manufacture of human medicines.

But Wilmut's institute went broke. So now, he has changed his tune about pursuing human cloning research. True, he won't be attempting reproductive cloning. But if he succeeds in creating cloned human embryos, his work could result directly in the birth of the first cloned baby. Here's why:

It is often stated that there are two different types of cloning--reproductive cloning, that is, cloning that results in the birth of a baby, and "therapeutic cloning," e.g., the creation of cloned human embryos for use and destruction in medical research. But this is a misnomer. Cloning is cloning is cloning. Once cloning creates a new embryo, there are no further acts of cloning. At that point, all that remains is deciding what to do with the new human life that has been created.

This means that if Wilmut learns how to reliably create cloned human embryos--even if he only uses the knowledge strictly for research--others will be able to use his techniques to create cloned embryos and then implant them in wombs to see if they can be gestated into babies.

One would think this might worry Wilmut. But becoming a direct participant in human cloning research isn't the first time Wilmut has adjusted his views. In The Second Creation, while supporting "therapeutic" human cloning, he wrote that he hoped no one ever attempts reproductive cloning because creating cloned babies was "repugnant in general" and without "medical justification."

This seemed to establish a firm ethical line. But only three years after the initial announcement of Dolly, Wilmut (writing with bioethicist and human cloning enthusiast Glenn McGee), suggested that reproductive cloning be treated as we now do applications to adopt children. In other words, bureaucrats would investigate cloning requests and turn thumbs up or down based on their findings.

Presumably, these applications would all be refused initially because of the great likelihood of miscarriage and birth defects. But should cloning become "safe,"--the very outcome that Wilmut's current research could help bring about--reproductive cloning could well be approved. Indeed, in later advocacy, Wilmut has suggested that reproductive cloning be allowed as a potential way for parents to avoid genetic disease.

Nor would reproductive cloning be the end of the trail. Rather, it would become a mere staging area for learning how to redesign the human race. Wilmut himself acknowledged in The New Creation that the ultimate point of cloning is to use the technology in learning how to genetically engineer mammalian genomes. Indeed, that was the very reason he and Campbell manufactured Dolly and Polly.

So, does Wilmut support conducting similar genetic engineering experiments in humans? In The Second Creation, he appeared, again, to give a firm "no," writing that "it is difficult to imagine a greater imposition" than adding "genes to future generations that changes the nature of future people."

But wait: A mere page later, Wilmut admitted, "I see nothing wrong ethically with the idea of correcting single gene defects" through genetic engineering. "But I am concerned about any other kind of intervention, for anything else would be an experiment," which would "impose our will on future generations" and take unreasonable chances "with their welfare." Thus, he concluded, "such intervention is beyond the scope of consideration."

But why should we believe him? It took Wilmut a few brief years to move from being an implacable foe of reproductive cloning to approving of it in some cases. And, since he has already told us that genetic engineering of humans through the wonders of cloning can be acceptable theoretically, we should not be surprised if a few more years down the line he has also become a vocal supporter of human germ line engineering.

This slip-sliding away is what happens when our ethical views actually amount to mere moral equivocation. To be sure, there are times when nuance is called for and when we must work through gray areas. For example, there is nothing inherently wrong with creating transgenic animals from which we can pharm useful medical substances. Our task with regard to that issue is to decide how much human in animals is too much human in animals. But there are also times when the only course to prevent profound wrongs is to establish firm ethical and legal barriers beyond which we will not tread.

Human cloning is such an issue. As Wilmut's ever-loosening ethical standards demonstrate, attempting to be partially for human cloning and partially against it creates an inherent intellectual instability which cannot long be maintained. Indeed, the very nature of the technology, to borrow Lincoln's wisdom about the inability of our nation remain half free and half slave, eventually forces us to decide to become all one thing or all the other.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.