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The Cloning Controversy

Aired August 7, 2001 - 22:30   ET


JEFF GREENFIELD, HOST: Cloning controversy is not just about safety or feasibility. It is about creating life, replicating life. So if it is playing God, what's wrong with that? And why does the concept stir such powerful emotions? The cloning controversy tonight on GREENFIELD AT LARGE.

It's got to be the ultimate image of the mad scientist at work -- crazed man in white lab coat, obligatory Einstein hair, popping identical adults, out of an endless row of pods. Society often has trouble coming to grips with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) concepts when they are poised to go breach the wall between science fiction and everyday life. Consider the use of animal implant or test tube babies.

And as CNN's Garrick Utley reports, neither of those advances challenge fundamental human concepts and religious beliefs nearly as directly, as powerfully as cloning does.


GARRICK UTLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It doesn't take a sidewalk philosopher to tell us why cloning pushes our most human button. Cloning challenges our identity as individuals, so when scientists claim they want to genetically replicate us as they did again today, it gets our attention.

DR. PANAYIOTIS ZAVOS: We are not perfect but we are trying to get there as perfectly as we can.

UTLEY (on camera): At the heart of the debate over cloning is a tension that exists right here. Part of us says we want to be part of the crowd like everyone else, we want to be accepted. Another part says, hey, I'm me. And don't make me like anyone else.

(voice-over): That is why any attempt to artificially create life has been as a dangerous Frankenstein game, as a subject for the dark comedy of a Woody Allen.


WOODY ALLEN, ACTOR: We are going to make an attempt to clone the patient directly into his suit, that way he'll be completely dressed at the end of the operation.


UTLEY: And then there is the question of whether evil could be cloned as with the young Hitlers and the boys from Brazil.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You are the living duplicate of the greatest man of history.


UTLEY: Of course, one person's evil may be another person's perfection. The Nazis were not the only ones to seek racial purity or improve the human race through artificial means. In the first half of 20th century America, most state legislatures passed eugenics laws, authorizing the sterilization of those considered to be "defective."

President Theodore Roosevelt after leaving office wrote, "I wish very much that the wrong people to be prevented entirely from breeding."

(on camera): Which brings us back to the basic question of where cloning should lead us. As humans are we content with our imperfections? After all we've come a long way in the past few million years, or do we want something more?

(voice-over): Certainly we want to improve our lives, our bodies and minds. Today a heart transplant is common. But if one day we could have a brain transplant, would we be the same person? Should it be allowed?

Some lines are being drawn. The House of Representatives has approved a bill banning human cloning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bill is passed and without objection the motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.

UTLEY: You don't have to be a genetic scientist to know that cloning cells can cross the line between improving life and determining life -- and identity.

A truly existential question -- human cloning -- no longer limited to poets and philosophers or scientists.


GREENFIELD: Or even talk shows for that matter. Joining me now are professor of molecular biology and public affairs from Princeton, Lee Silver. He is the author of "Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform The American Family."

Doctor Sherwin Nuland, you have met him here before, he is the author of the best-selling book "How We Die And Wisdom Of The Body." He is a clinical professor of surgery at Yale, and a founding member of the Yale-New Haven Hospital Bioethics Committee. Also with us: Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, she is the editor of "Commonweal" magazine and former director of publications at the National Pastoral Life Center.

There's are some big questions to talk about, but there are also some concrete ones, Professor Silver. Do we now know how to clone a human being and do we know how to do it now with a minimal or nonexistent risk of abnormalities?

PROF. LEE M. SILVER, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: The answer to the first question is yes, the answer to the second is no. We have a basic understanding of how cloning works. Already thousands of animals have been cloned. And there's no reason why the same process couldn't be accomplished with humans.

The problem is that it carries a very high risk. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of the animals born by the technology have had terrible birth defects. At this point, unless someone has a way to distinguish healthy embryos from the normal ones, it's quite risky to do in humans.

GREENFIELD: Dr. Nuland, if we get to the point where we can say credibly, this risk of abnormalities, of stillbirths is not -- no longer a problem, would that be enough to ease the problems you have with cloning or is it a broader question for you?

DR. SHERWIN NULAND, YALE SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: No, it's much broader question. The question really has to do with something even broader than broad. It has to do with the temper of the times, it has to do with narcissism, it has to do with the notion that science will allow us the ultimate self-expression, the ultimate selfishness, as it were. We are living at a time where medicine, biological science in general, is no longer thinking only of treating disease, but thinking of enhancement, thinking of changing the species, thinking of changing the hereditary characteristics of our race.


NULAND: So, who's going to get it? You and me, and the two other panelists here, and what about the rest of the world, for example?

GREENFIELD: I want to explore that question later. But on the fundamental point Dr. Nuland makes, seems to me that if we enhance our lives through vitamins, through exercise, through heart valves, through all of these things, is there something about this potentially new step that is fundamentally different?


GREENFIELD: Which is what?

STEINFELS: The first thing that strikes me about the whole conversation is the degree to which scientists promising us new hearts, new -- new hamstrings, new hair, new brains, sound little bit like the famous American huckster, the snakeoil salesman. It seems to me we're being sold a lot of cures for a lot of things at this point because they would very much want to have federal funding for stem cell and for cloning.

So I'm not entirely clear what we are actually going to get out of this in the end. But if we get what we're promised, it seems to me, we're making a qualitative leap into a new kind of control and manipulation, if you will, the manufacturer of the human person. And I'm not entirely sure in my own mind that we're ready of this move.

GREENFIELD: Dr. Silver, putting aside the feasibility and safety what will we be getting if we're able to do reproductive cloning?

SILVER: Reproductive cloning is really a metaphor for all of the different things we are talking about now, which actually go beyond cloning like genetic enhancement, and changing the body in various ways. And we've been practicing that for the last 100 years. Medicine has given us tremendous technologies that improved the health of affluent people and affluent societies and making our lives better and longer lived.

I don't see that there there's problem. I think individuals should decide for themselves if they want to use this technology.

NULAND: But we have never changed anything that gets carried down to the next generation. We have never changed a single thing in the heredity of a single person, and this is what we are threatening -- and I use that word deliberately -- to do. And this perhaps is an issue that hasn't been spoken of publicly. Obviously it's been spoken about among the scientists, but the general public never thinks of the implications of that so far.

SILVER: I think many people are troubled by this as you say, but a lot of it has to do with fundamental religious notions, whether it's conscious or not, of not touching the genome because it's sacred. I think that parents do all sorts of things for their children now after birth. I don't see the difference between doing for the children before birth.

GREENFIELD: If I may, we'll pick this up when we get back because we are off and running where I think the core of this argument is and will be for some time to come. When we come back, since we have put aside safety issues, would successful cloning just be playing God?

And as I asked a moment ago, what's wrong with that? And later, some cautionary tales about humanity's quest for knowledge. A bit more severe than curiosity killing the cat. That's coming up.


GREENFIELD: We are back with Princeton Professor Lee Silver; "Commonweal" magazine editor Margaret O'brien Steinfels; and the author of "How We Die," Yale Professor Doctor Sherwin Nuland.

Ms. Steinfels: The numbers we just put up on the screen had to do with in-vitro fertilization. You man remember when Louise Brown was born, the so-called "test-tube baby." Shows like this were talking about it for a while. I was considered an astonishing Orwellian vision by some people.

On hundred and twenty-thousand children later, I would say that for most people whatever (UNINTELLIGIBLE) issues remain, people kind of accepted that. So, the question that comes to mind is whether or not 20 years from now this debate will seem odd -- that this be will another example of what Professor Silver talks about, been going on for 100 years, just making choices broader and making life better. Is that possible?

STEINFELS: I mean it's certainly possible that 20 years from now, since we are a culture with bad memories that we will treat a cloned event simply as we have the in-vitro fertilization.

GREENFIELD: That would make you uneasy, right?

STEINFELS: It would certainly make me uneasy. I'm rather dubious that that is what's going to happen. I think Dr. Silver pointed out some of the serious, one would say technical, problems with carrying this out. And even if you look at in-vitro fertilization -- it's not experimental -- but it's a highly risky procedure both in terms of the woman's own health and the outcomes for the number of pregnancies that actually establish themselves and children are born.

So there are certain kinds of practical questions that I think get lost here and I also think there are larger questions about what we think we are doing when we decide that we will design our own progeny.

GREENFIELD: This is what I find so curious. I want to throw some light on just where the dilemma lies. Do you have a problem with the idea of, I think they are called transgenic animals? They are animals basically bred and cloned because they produce valves, they produce organs that can be implanted in humans. Is this an example of what you would consider narcissism or is this OK?

NULAND: No, this is part of biomedical research. This has nothing whatever to do with narcissism. This has to do with the potential treatment of disease. It doesn't have to do with redesigning a human being because of the egocentricity of our civilization.

SILVER: I think we should understand what it means to redesign a human being. What are people really going to want to do with this technology? They are going to want to give their children protect against cancer, heart disease, all sort of things that are clearly doable at the genetic level. I don't think that is narcissistic.

NULAND: They are also going to want to give their children shorter noses, prettier eyes. All the boy will be six-three, all the girls will be five-eighth and nice and thin. Everybody will be able to sing beautifully and get 1600 on their SATs. This is where we go. SILVER: So you are saying the technology is too good? And that the people who will not benefit from it are -- that's the reason we shouldn't be doing it.

NULAND: No, I actually think the technology is not good at all, but this is what we are aiming for. This is the ultimate thing people are seeing when they support such ventures. This is why so much money can be poured into it because perfection awaits us.

GREENFIELD: I'm looking at world we live in now, at least a percentage of us in the year 2001, and I look at parents, I think this is where narcissism could universally agreed to, going crazy. They are sending their kids for nose jobs at the age of 14. They are sending them to so many classes the kids have to time to be children anymore.

If parents are making bad choices, they are going to make bad choices whether they have the cloning technology or they are just neurotic, right?

STEINFELS: But do you think they should expand the number of bad choices they can make?

SILVER: If you can do one why not the other?

NULAND: You have just condemned it. And now you are going ahead and saying well, this is one of the reasons for doing it. They are going to do it anyway. Saying something is inevitable is a wonderful way of beating off the opposite.

GREENFIELD: I'm not saying it's inevitable. I'm simply raising this question, what professor Silver says is that there is a lot of good things you can do from this, and there will probably be some bad things. And the question is whether or not you folks think we ought to put a stop to what potentially could be very good, possibly curing cancer, genetic defects...

SILVER: It's genetic protections against many of the problems that afflict us human beings. You can put those into the genes. I think that is going to be the first use of this technology. We are really talking about something that goes beyond cloning. We are talking about parents wanting to advantage their children which every normal parent wants to do. And so this technology, which is the technology of genetic enhancement, I think is going to be appealing to huge numbers of people, unlike cloning. STEINFELS: I mean, do all parents want to advantage their children in a way that place their children outside of the kind of normal play of human experience and human biology? And I only ask this question because I think some of these things really do raise questions about resource allocation apart from the cloning question.

SILVER: They are going to want to give their children genes that other children get naturally.

GREENFIELD: Let me ask may what may well be an unfair question, but by god that's my right. A hundred twenty years ago, I can imagine people saying, if somebody came up with a cockamamy theory about vaccines, that's not how God created your child, or that is not nature created your child. You are playing God by injecting these live viruses into these children.

NULAND: And they did.


NULAND: And the same thing happened with the invention of anesthesia.


NULAND: God expects to us have pain. We are talking about methodologies that are therapeutic, as opposed to methodologies that enhance the biology that our own biology has given us. And there is a huge difference as I'm sure you will you admit.

GREENFIELD: Well, I will let Dr. Silver answer that when come back, because I think this exactly the thread we want to stay on. And later a short cautionary tale about what mythology tells us about perhaps learning too much, in a minute.


GREENFIELD: We are talking about cloning with Princeton professor Lee Silver; "Commonweal" magazine editor Margaret O'brien Steinfels; and Yale Professor Doctor Sherwin Nuland, author of "How We Die." Professor Silver, Dr. Nuland says this isn't like all the other objections. This is different in a fundamental way.

SILVER: I think we have to realize that the human species is not monolithic. Every child is born with advantages and disadvantages, along thousands of bell curves. And what parents are going to do is they are going to want to give their kids the genes that other kids get naturally.

And if you try to stop them from doing it, they are going to say, why can't I give my children genes that other kid get naturally, that protect against all these diseases and provide advantages in live?

GREENFIELD: Ms. Steinfels, you raised the question about resource allocation and it may well be true that the more affluent will be able to afford this, but then aren't you raising an objection, not to cloning, but to the way society ought to be organized. Certainly rich people have better health care right now than poor people.

STEINFELS: They do. But obviously as a society, we make choices about how we spend our tax dollars. And so no individual parent is going on to pay for this research -- well, I suppose a very rich one could -- but we as a society are going to be paying for this kind of research while there are children in this country that go without, you know, basic health care.

There was the story of El Paso, Texas, this morning.

GREENFIELD: Very true, but we pay also pay for research into better hair dyes, when people go without health care. Is that a valid objection to cloning, that is that the resources are going to be misallocated?

You are on much more fundamental issues.

NULAND: Well, I'm not aware that the National Institute of Health fund research on hair dyes.

GREENFIELD: Private companies do.

NULAND: Which brings up an entire new issue. This is the first time in the history of science, where making a lot of money may be motivating some of the decisions about scientific research. There's a huge economic foundation behind cloning potentially, and no economic foundation for fighting it.

So what we have got are the resources of an economic thrust with nothing standing in the way of that economic. And this is a new thing also for science.

GREENFIELD: Now, does that raise problem for you?

SILVER: It doesn't because then biotechnology becomes like computer technology and computer technology is privately funded after basic the research was done with government funds. We don't have a problem with that because we live in a market society. I'm not saying this is good. I don't think it is good that some people will be able to afford wonderful things for their children and other people won't. But I don't see how you can stop that in our society.


STEINFELS: The way you stop it is with politics. This is what our political system is about.

NULAND: What about scientific detachment? The wonderful classical wonderful thing that made you what you are, your ability to distance yourself from anything about your own curiosity.

SILVER: That's wonderful in an idealistic way, but a lot of scientists are making a lot of money at biotech companies.

NULAND: That's my point.

GREENFIELD: We are down to our last couple of minutes and I just want to get from each of you -- I hate predictions, but in this case maybe we can call it scientific extrapolation. You mentioned politics. You believe that the Congress should and will put a stop to human cloning in the United States?

STEINFELS: I was surprised that the House had the guts to vote as it did. Now whether the Senate will or not is the big question. I hope they do. GREENFIELD: If they do, the proponents say, so, it will move offshore. Do you think that a vote from Congress to stop cloning will stop research into human cloning?

SILVER: No, not somewhere in the world. I would be very surprised. This is the first time the Congress has taken action of this kind to stop research in its path like this.

NULAND: But this is also the first time in history of science where the implications of what are being done go beyond the scientists, beyond the patients who may be affected and involve the entire greater society, so society should be involved whether in the form of political people, or regulatory agency that is politically appointed with the advice of scientists, which is what many people are recommending as a matter of fact.

GREENFIELD: Since you are a little outnumbered on this panel, I want to come back and give you what may be the last word. Do you think some of the opposition to cloning is being driven by what we saw in the set up piece, a kind of si-fi fear of you know, people cloning themselves?

SILVER: Yes. I think that most people in this country and elsewhere in the world don't understand what cloning is. And they see it as a metaphor for the awesome power of biotechnology, and they are afraid of it. GREENFIELD: OK, on that note, I want to thank my guests. There is only one of each of them as of now: Princeton Professor Lee Silver, who wrote, "Remaking Eden: How genetic engineering And Cloning Will Transform The American Family"; Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, she is the editor of "Commonweal" magazine; and Yale professor Doctor Sherwin Nuland, author of, "How We Die" and other books.

When we come back, phobia. It's even older than science when you talk about science phobia. And I will show you why in a second.


GREENFIELD: And another thing: Cloning may be a cutting edge technology, but our response to it, a mix of fascination and fear, is as old as our hopes, and fears, about all such power. The story of creation, as set down in "Genesis," tells of God creating Eve from Adam's rib.

That account squares with science in at least one sense, since only a man has both the x and y chromosome, it would have been impossible to create a man from a woman. Not that long after, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit from the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil," and were banished from Eden: A biblical warning often repeated in popular stories, that there are some things on this Earth man was not meant to know.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods, so that man might put it to use. His reward was to be nailed to a mountain, where an eagle tore his liver out every day. In "Frankenstein," subtitled by the way "A Modern Prometheus," Mary Shelley gave us the story of a brilliant college student, Victor Frankenstein, yes, it's his name, not the monster's, who brings to life a monster shaped out of corpses. And the creature ultimately turns on Frankenstein and destroys him.

Even the sorcerer's apprentice offers a cautionary tale. The young apprentice animates a broomstick to do the cleaning, and watches helplessly as the broomsticks begin to multiply completely out of control. Whatever happens with the current controversy, it is striking how we have brought to the idea of creating life such fascination, and such fear.

I'm Jeff Greenfield. Tomorrow, from your income, to who your neighbors are, how America is changing. "SPORTS TONIGHT" is next. Thank you for watching.



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