Cloning and the Rest of Us

Take a sperm cell from a man, implant it into an empty egg from a woman and coax it to break and split as a normal embryo and what do you have? A baby. Break that embryo further and you could have designer twins, even a triplet. Sounds creepy? Well, that is human cloning in a simplistic description.

In an unimaginable development of what started five years ago as a novelty that arrested world attention when scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland presented the cloned sheep known as Dolly, clonning has today become a major issue all over the world, dragging human kind to the crossroads of scientific resaerch and ethical concerns.

From Scotland where it all started toWashington, Australia, and other parts of western Europe to the Vertican City, the issue of human cloning has become so highly contentious that many nations are already considering it’s possibility even as the Pope and thousands of other people look on – stunned by the spectacle of man attempting to play God.

Many mouths were left hanging during the week, at a National Academy of Science conference in Washington D.C, when an Italian embryologist, Dr. Severino Antinori, the same man who seven years ago assisted a 63-year old woman to have a baby, declared that in three months, he would begin the process of helping about 200 couples have cloned babies.

The Italian scientist was not kidding. To be sure, the laboratories for the cloning operation, according to his American partner, Dr.Pamos Zavos, has already been established and made ready for the production of the first set of scientifically designed babies. The couples who are volunteering for the experiment are also ready as cloning seems to be the only way for the males involved to become fathers (they cannot in the “natural” way).

Journalists at that Washington conference, including this writer, were stunned. Not only does the prospect of cloned babies strike everyone, perhaps even you the reader, as being medically dangerous. It is morally appalling.

The fact that the announcement was also coming just days after the American House of Congress placed a ban on human cloning added to the shock. When journalists and others at the conference eventually realised they were not hearing a fairy tale story and rained questions on the Italian scientist popularly called the “magician” one thing was clear – the world is gradually coming to terms with human cloning.

The spectacle on the floor of the U.S house of congress during the debate before the enactment of the “Human Cloning Prohibiton Act” also confirm the fact that whether in the open or in secret, human cloning will soon become a reality, if infact it has not started. Although Congressman Dave Weldon who moved the bill for the prohibition act eventually carried the day, albiet by a small margin, the debate in the house showed that enforcing the ban on human cloning may not be possible.

The fact that Dr. Antinori was not arrested after his announcement is another pointer to the growing belief that nobody may in fact be sent to ten years in jail or fined the sum of $1 million as Congressman Weldon’s bill proposed. The worst that can happen is that scientists like the Italian will simply move their laboratories out of America to another place like, say Nigeria, and start playing God.

What has made the cloning issue more contentious, apart from the possibility of helping sterile men become”fathers” is the fact that it holds the prospect of huge scientific breakthrough in the curing of several ailments through the use of stem cells from the embryo. It is also a potential money making venture.

As you read this article, President George Bush is under fire for his administration’s decision to allow government funding for some degree of stem cells experimentation. This could become a major deciding factor for his re-election. The reason for this is because there seem to be as many Americans who support it in one form or the other as those who are strongly opposed to it. President Bush’s dilemma is compounded by his campaign promise during the 2000 elections and the fact that he belongs to the Methodist church.

Researchers at the Jones Institute in Virginia, which is less than thirty minutes drive from the American President’s office at the Whitehouse, have successfully isolated stem cells from as young as 5-day old human embryos that were created during in-vitro fertilization.

The fact that these stem cells produced from the human embryo can be developed into as many as 200 tissues in the human body is the major reason for the campaign for human cloning to begin in earnest. It holds an incredible promise for curing diseases like Alzeheimer’s, Parkinson’s Syndrome, cardiac problems, diabetes and even the restoration of a paralysed person.

Great Britain and Japan are believed to have reached an advanced stage in the cloning process to maximally utilize the medical potentials it offers for curing ailments and Americans as usual will not want to play second fiddle. Little wonder therefore that Congresswoman Louise Slaughter told fellow Americans during the floor debate that “We must not allow our fears about resaerch to overwhelm the hope for curing diseases”.

The embryo and human cloning research offers the prospect of making so many Americans and non-Americans with now “incurable” diseases to be cured. It will make the legendary boxer Mohammed Ali to be normal again but what will it do to you who live in Nigeria, West-Africa? Will you want to have a cloned baby?

It appears Africans and the people of Africa are not even being taken into consideration in the entire gamut. One, the African value and culture will definitely not allow couples to come out and say “since I can not have a child naturally please manufacture one for me in the laboratory”.

Secondly, I wonder why these scientists and researchers have not been able to find out how the stem cells can help cure millions of Africans infected with the HIV/AIDS so that Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-Genaral can have something tangible to put the money in the global fund he has been raising into – all we are told now is that it will cure Parkinson’s Syndrome, Alzeheimer’s and some other “Oyinbo” diseases.


*This piece was first published in The Anchor Newspaper of Nigeria.

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