The immoral in pursuit of the inimitable

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THIS year my cocker spaniel, whom I had for 15 years, passed away. Without wishing to sound too sentimental, it was a sad moment and I am not alone in feeling that I would give anything, or do anything, to have him back, fit and young again.

But it simply can’t happen; even though there is an ad in my local newspaper for a small biotechnology company based in the San Francisco area which claims by May 2006 it will be able to produce on order cloned dogs.

The firm in question is Genetic Savings and Clone, which on Wednesday sold the world’s first cloned pet for the astonishing sum of $50,000. The nine-week-old kitten, christened Little Nicky in memory of its genetic donor Nicky, is, we are told, almost identical to its predecessor.

I don’t know about you but I winced when I read the comments of its proud new owner Julie.

"I see absolutely no differences between Little Nicky and Nicky," she gushed shortly after spending nearly a year’s salary on the kitten. "When Little Nicky yawned, I even saw two spots inside his mouth - just like Nicky had."

I hate to be a killjoy but most people who are pursuing pet cloning are not getting what they want. They are spending huge sums of money to get a pet immortalised or to guarantee getting a pet exactly like the one before; what they actually want is their pet back and this is not what they are getting.

I wonder if, when Julie cuddles up to Nicky, she realises the enormity of her actions. The fact is, this cynical attempt to pursue immortality is both morally problematic and a little reprehensible. Stop to think. For $50,000, she could have provided homes for a lot of strays.

The recent decoding of the human genome has reinforced the idea that genes are the "blueprint of life" and ignores all the complexity of life. This may undermine moral responsibility because if everything in our life is in our genes, we don’t have to take responsibility for our actions.

For if we define life in genetic terms, have we not lost any sense of its sanctity? I belive there is a real danger that this is a symptom of a larger problem in our culture - that we are really unable to accept, even for our pets, our own mortality.

However much you spend, however much you perfect the cloning technique, there will never be a 100 per cent guarantee that the little Nicky or little Tabatha or junior Twiddles will ever be the same as Nicky senior, Tabatha senior and Twiddles original. Julie, I hate to break it to you, but it is simply not possible.

Genetic Savings and Clone says its new cloning technique, developed by the animal cloning pioneer James Robl, has improved survival rates, health and appearance. In a nutshell the new technique seeks to condense and transfer only the donor’s genetic material to a surrogate’s egg instead of an entire cell nucleus.

But even if you produce a perfect replica of the genetic donor, that ignores the basic premise that an animal’s behaviour is complex and depends not just on genes but on their environment.

Most of the people pursuing pet cloning do not understand what they want, so there is really no good reason for pursuing pet cloning because they are not going to get what they want.

And what about the health of Little Nicky? We know that the immune systems of cloned mice are compromised; many of them die young and have high rates of pneumonia, liver disease and cancer. Even Dolly, the sheep cloned in Edinburgh, developed arthritis at a young age, then lung cancer, and died a year later.

The risk that cloned animals will have a shortened lifespan is extremely high. So why create animals that may very well have short lifespans, for no good reason?

Quite simply, we are exposing animals to risks for very few, if any, benefits and exposing ourselves to a plethora of what we simply are not familiar with and know nothing about.

The cells themselves (used for cloning) could have age problems. Imprinting errors could create more potential problems. If some genes don’t get reprogrammed correctly, there could be an accumulation of genetic errors.

And where next? Savings and Clone says it hopes to deliver as many as five more clones to customers who have paid the company’s $50,000 fee and by the end of next year, it hopes to have cloned as many as 50 cats.

Then what? Dogs? Hamsters? Fish? And eventually humans? But I suspect that we will never hear about the first human clone because the first, maybe the first ten, will be quite deformed at birth and will probably be aborted.

I doubt we’ll hear any public announcement until they have a successful, healthy birth and then no doubt there will be someone dumb enough to shell out for a human Little Nicky.

• David Magnus is co-director of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University in California.