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6.6: Cloning: Current Perspectives and Discussions

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    Since I am not a scientist, my interest in the subject of cloning is triggered by an article on stem cell research that I read recently in the popular magazine Scientific American. I know that stem cell research is a controversial subject, related to the subject of human cloning. My interest in stem cell research was further provoked by the impassioned speech made by Ron Regan, the son of the late President Ronald Regan, at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in the summer of 2004. Regan was trying to make a case for more stem cell research by arguing that it could have helped hid father who had died of Alzheimer’s disease. 

    I conducted a quick search of my university library using the key words “human cloning.” The search turned up eighty-seven book titles that told me that the topic is fairly important for the academic community as well as for the general public. I noticed that the most recent book on cloning in my library’s collection was published this year while the oldest one appeared in 1978. There seemed to be an explosion of interest in the topic beginning in the 1990s with the majority of the titles appearing between then and 2004.

    Next, I decided to search two online databases, which are also accessible from my university library’s website. I was interested in both scientific and legal aspects of cloning, so I searched the health science database PubMed (my search turns up 2549 results). Next, I search the database LexisNexis Congressional that gave me access to legislative documents related to human cloning. This search left me with over a hundred documents.

    I was able to find many more articles on human cloning in popular magazines and newspapers. By reading across these publications, I would probably be able to get a decent idea about the current state of the debate on cloning.

    Cloning: A Historical Investigation

    Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996 by British scientists and died in 2003. According to the website Science Museum (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk), “Dolly the sheep became a scientific sensation when her birth was announced in 1997. Her relatively early death in February 2003 fuels the debate about the ethics of cloning research and the long-term health of clones.”

    I am tempted to start my search with Dolly because it was her birth that brought the issue of cloning to broad public’s attention. But then I recall the homunculus—a “test tube” human being that medieval alchemists often claimed to have created. It appears that my search into the history of cloning debate will have to go back much further than 1996 when Dolly was cloned.

    Cloning: Signs of Paradigm Shifts

    Living in the 21st century, I am skeptical towards alchemists’ claims about creating a homunculus out of a bad of bones, skin, and hair. Their stories may have been believable in the middle-ages, though, and may have represented the current paradigm of thinking about the possibility of creating living organisms is a lab. So, I turned to Dolly in an attempt to investigate what the paradigm of thinking about cloning was in the second half of the 1990s and how the scientific community and the general public received the news of Dolly’s birth. Therefore, I went back to my university library’s web page and searched the databases for articles on Dolly and cloning published within two years of Dolly’s birth in 1996.

    After looking through several publications, both from scientific and popular periodicals, I sense excitement, surprise, skepticism, and a little concern about the future implications of our ability to close living creatures. Writing for The Sunday Times, in 1998, Steve Connor says that Dolly would undergo texts to prove that she is, indeed, the clone of her mother. In his article, Connor uses such words as “reportedly” which indicates skepticism (The Sunday Times, Feb 8, 1998, p. 9). 

    In a New Scientist article published in January 1998, Philip Cohen writes that in the future scientists are likely to establish human cloning techniques. Cohen is worried that human cloning would create numerous scientific, ethical, and legal problems. (New Scientist, Jan 17, 1998 v157 n2117 p. 4(2))

    Let’s now fast-forward to 2003 and 2004. Surprisingly, at the top of the page of search results are the news that the British biotech company whose employees cloned Dolly. Does this mean that cloning is dead, though? Far from it! My research shows debates about legal and ethical aspects of cloning. The ability of scientists to clone living organisms is not in doubt anymore. By now, political and ideological groups have added their agendas and their voices to the cloning and stem cell research debate, and the US Congress has enacted legislation regulating stem cell research in the US. The current paradigm of discussions of human cloning and the related subject of stem cell research is not only scientific but also political, ethical, legal, and ideological in nature.

    The historical study project as well as my illustration of how such an investigation could be completed should illustrate two things. Firstly, if you believe that something about human cloning or any other topic worth investigating is an undisputable fact, chances are that some years ago in was “only” someone’s opinion, or, in Kuhn’s words, an “anomaly” which the current system of beliefs and the available research methods could not explain. Secondly, academic and social attitudes towards any subject of discussion and debate are formed and changed gradually over time. Both internal, discipline specific factors, and external, social ones, contribute to this change. Such internal factors include the availability of new, more accurate research techniques or equipment. The external factors include, but are not limited to, the general cultural and political climate in the country and in the world. Academic research and academic discussions are, therefore, rhetorical phenomena which are tightly connected not only to the state of an academic discipline at any given time, but also to the state of society as a whole and to the interests, beliefs, and convictions of its members. 

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