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We said send in the clones, not the clowns

By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2003


It doesn't take much during a slow news season to get every talking head in the news biz blabbering at high speed.

This time it was cloning.

Other than a few nights of weird dreams about a world suddenly populated with women with red-and-white striped hair and brown teeth, I didn't worry much about the claims of Clonaid, a company controlled by a former race car driver who says space aliens told him they created the human race through cloning.

Let's face it, it was at least more fun than last year's world media tail-chaser, the Segway, which was hyped for months only as "It," and was, we were promised, going to completely change society and commerce as we know them -- and which turned out to be an overpriced gyroscopically balanced scooter for adults too lazy to walk, an idea with a half-life less than the Edsel's.

The difference is, in part, that scooters, no matter who comes up with a new innovation in design and manufacture, don't have overwhelming ethical implications. You just apply the rules for skateboards, although adult riders will not be required to wear their hats backward or maim themselves by trying to ride them down stair rails.

But human cloning is a much squirmier bag of worms and, even when its accomplishment is claimed by a bunch of pseudo-religious whackos whose last-traced scientific facility turned out to be a post office box in the Bahamas, turned out to be a great springboard for debate.

I once went to a "news conference" called by a man who was going to reveal horrible things about a nearby VA hospital. It turned out that the doctors, whom he couldn't name, had given him the wrong medication (although he couldn't name it or identify the right one or say how he knew the difference) for an injury he said he had received in the Korean War -- although his service in Korea took place after the war.

I glanced at George Wilkins, the Tampa Tribune reporter at the news conference. We nodded, got up and went out for coffee.

It's beyond me why the world press didn't do that with Brigitte Boisselier and her bizarre claim that an unidentified woman in an undisclosed place had given birth to the world's first cloned human being (not counting those claimed by the space aliens) through a process that apparently produced no medical records and took place in an undisclosed location. And: a promise that the whole thing would be verified by a former network newsman whose scientific credentials reportedly include work on astrology, ESP and telekinesis.

Part of the problem might be that it will eventually take someone with a total disregard for real science, and the ethical and legal backlashes that will occur, to try cloning humans. We live in a society where in-vitro fertilization, abortion, artificial insemination and even birth control are still hot-button issues to a lot of people. Stem-cell research is currently a major political issue and, apparently, human cloning also will be when and if it ever takes place outside side-show press conferences and science fiction.

As expected by anybody with half a functioning brain, the Raelians are suddenly having difficulty producing human bodies (cloned or otherwise), replicable data for peer review, or anything else other than insane jabbering about what they now claim are two cloned babies.

The biggest rap against cloning is that it could lead to the creation of living "organ banks" of clones with DNA identical to that of the person from whom the cell nucleus for the process was taken. That is only one of dozens of questions medical ethicists are wrestling with.

On a less heady note, I would have to ask, "Why?" I have only read statements from two Raelians, and understand why they might wish to replicate themselves and wouldn't want to put it up to a vote. But in a world where we are filling the joint up with too many people the old-fashioned way (which, incidentally, is far more fun), why bother with coming up with new ways?

Nature has given us one Michael Jackson, one Anna Nicole Smith, one RuPaul, one John Ashcroft and, for that matter, only one Jan Glidewell.

Do we have the right to be greedy?

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