Article

Send In The Clones

The end of 2002 was marked with a sudden storm of controversy. It all centered on Clonaid, the company claiming to provide “eternal life thanks to science”. On 27 December the world's first human cloning company stated that it had cloned a baby girl called Eve.

For many this was a shock to the system. And the hype only intensified when the organisation reported a second clone baby born to a lesbian couple in the Netherlands. And now Clonaid has released reports that the first boy has been cloned – a baby born in Japan, joining Eve and the Dutch child.

Clonaid has thus far failed to prove Eve's origins (or those of the other claimed clones), reporting that; “Eve's parents have decided to postpone their decision to grant access to an independent expert. They will allow the tests to be performed only when they have the absolute guarantee that the baby will not be taken from them.”

A visit to Clonaid's website brings the gay community squarely into the picture. “Homosexuals,” says the site, “Cannot have a child today that is 100% related to them genetically but human cloning will provide this possibility…” Clonaid promises to help you, “…if you are a homosexual couple with a profound desire to have a child carrying your own genes”.

And genes are the crux of the matter. While some gay couples (or individuals) who would like to raise kids are happy to adopt a child, for some men and women, it is important the child carries their genes. While a surrogate mother is a possibility, the child will only carry some of the gay father's genes, together with the mother's own. For those that feel it vital that child be a sole product of themselves or of combined genes with their same sex partner, cloning is the first step towards making that possible.

“Is cloning the key to gay reproduction?” asks US journal Metro Weekly. Journalist Will Doig argues that, “While human cloning will impact the whole world, it will affect gay and lesbian people uniquely. A clone born to a same-sex couple will be the first baby ever created outside the realm of heterosexuality.”

“Concerns about clone discrimination intensify when one considers the idea of clones born to gay parents,” he continues, “Many scientists believe that genetics play at least a partial role in sexual orientation. If this is true, clones born to gay parents would be more likely to turn out gay themselves.”

Ironically, although they reject the idea that homosexuality could be genetic, this taps right intro the right wing paranoia of gays taking over the straight world.

LIFE bills itself as “Pro-Woman, Pro-Child, Pro-Life”, and has reacted strongly to the thought of cloning babies for gay couples. The organisation has called the potential technique “yet another attack in the natural order of human sexuality and procreation.”

“This is horrifying manipulation of human life,” says LIFE trustee Nuala Scarisbrick. “Every child needs and deserves a loving mother and father. Nature got it right. Homosexual ‘marriage' and parenting should be rejected out of hand. All decent people instinctively find it repugnant. We must not allow it to happen.”

Theresa Pinto Sherer of Salon.com makes observations extremely appropriate to this statement by LIFE. “It is clear,” she says, “That much of the queasiness about human cloning for purposes of reproduction will be motivated by homophobia. Protests against male eggs will not just be about the issue of cloning but about homosexuality and the rights of gay men and women to have biological children.” So true it seems, bearing LIFE's comments in mind, that the gay cloning issue inevitably broadens into larger issues around homosexuality itself. With homophobia rife as it is throughout the world, the reality is that the gay cloning concept could only make things worse.

“It is interesting to note that a major argument used by the Religious Right in its opposition to same-sex unions is based on the notion that marriage is supposed to serve the purpose of procreation. According to this line of reasoning, gay unions should not be sanctioned because they are biologically barren. If we take the Religious Right at its word, the ability of gay women, or gay men, to co-procreate should validate their right to become married.”

So says Randolfe Wicker, former gay activist with Mattachine and founder of the world's first pro-human cloning group – the Clone Rights United Front. In an article written for Gay Today Wicker argues that gay men producing children could thus, by Religious Right, even the playing grounds with their heterosexual counterparts and be seen as a “normal” married couple. This presupposes, of course, that gay couples actually hold the eternal hope that their union will one day be considered equal by straight norms. Perhaps gay couples aren't willing to pander to society's rules as to what does and does not constitute a marriage.

So do we want to be integrated into society in this way, assuming that the integration process would be so simple? And is a clone really what we want? Surely wanting a biological child is one thing, and wanting a genetic replica of oneself is another. A biological child and a genetically created clone are not the same thing, if only because of the connotations associated with cloning and the emotions of society constantly running high.

Putting aside the ethical issues for a moment and turning to the “how”, the cloning process is fairly simple one in principle. A woman's egg is stripped of its genetic material. Then DNA from a donor (which has been carefully treated to think it is there to grow into an individual) is introduced. The result is that a foetus begins to develop, bearing only the DNA of the single donor parent. In theory, this is possible right now, allowing a gay man or woman (with a help of an egg donor) to have a genetically identical child. But how will this help a gay couple wanting to have a child that is a union of both their DNA?

Scientists are currently in the process of developing the so-called “male egg”. Calum MacKellar, a lecturer in bioethics and biochemistry at Edinburgh University, told ABC News that, “The technique, which scientists agree still lies in the future, would use the egg of a woman. Genetic material inside the woman's egg would be removed (as in traditional cloning) and actually ‘replaced' by the DNA of one of the men. That ‘male egg' would then be fertilized by the sperm of the other man and a surrogate mother would carry the child to term.”

While this method is still to be tried and tested, it would, if successful, create the possibility for a child to contain the DNA of both its male “parents”. In a sense this is not really cloning as there are two sets of DNA, which are combined to create a new individual. This in fact is a lot like traditional reproduction, the real difference being that the two sets of DNA come from parents of the same sex.

But how likely is this or any other notion of same-sex cloning? “It's as likely as the cloning they're talking about at the moment,” says Professor Rob Veale of Wits University's Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, “Essentially you only need one parent.”

The notion of the “male egg” presents another problem. “You still need a mother to implant it into,” Professor Veale explains, “Currently science can only run it to an early stage of development and then you need the perfect environment. And right now that environment is the uterus.”

And while scientists worldwide are researching and developing possibilities for children to be born ex vivo (outside the body), this is still far off. The woman is still very much part of the equation and is necessary to the reproductive process. Genetics and DNA aside, a legal can of worms is sure to open on the issue of the woman's rights as a carrier and child bearer. And, apart from anything else, the cloned child could then be said to have three “parents” – a mom and two dads.

One thing that Clonaid definitely has not gotten right is the idea that cloning is a means to eternal life. While cloning can produce a child that is genetically identical to its parent, this does not mean that the child will actually be identical to its parent. The child will not be a young version of you. A myriad of factors will influence the personality and even appearance of the offspring. These include the nutrients and hormones received by the child in-utero, as well as other environmental factors once the child is born. This was highlighted by a recently cloned kitten that looked remarkably different from its parent.

Brigitte Boisselier of Clonaid on CNNThere are other concerns associated with cloning at the moment. “You can get them (cloned children) to grow but you want them to be one hundred percent as they were if they were born normally,” Veale continues. And according to him, scientists are still working towards eradicating problems and defects that could occur later. It will take time for scientist to be able to assess the long-term far-reaching effects of cloning on humans. Tests may show positive results now, but no one is sure as to what problems could develop as the children enter further stages of growth and development.

“It'll be a while,” says Professor Veale, “I don't think it's going to happen tomorrow.” Having said that, however, he perceives that the cloning drive will not be halted now that research and scientific efforts are surging ahead. “It will happen in spite of the controversy and efforts to stop it,” he concludes, “Regardless of all the discussion of sociological and social ethics it's not going to be forgotten.”

A Time/CNN poll as early as February 2001 saw 86% of participating Americans say it was a “bad idea” to allow gay couples to clone their own children. And that was before Clonaid alleged that an actual human cloning had taken place, and then offered their services to homosexuals.

Clearly, then, there is enough homophobia and prejudice surrounding the mere concept of gay couples cloning a child. While opposing camps debate the ethics and social issues associated with cloning, how many people have stopped to think of the cloned children themselves? One wonders how the cloned children of gay parents would cope both emotionally and in social terms. What will these potential children have to face during their lifetimes? Is it worth putting a child through all this? It seems that a point of consideration when making such a decision should be the interest of the child cloned from a same-sex couple.

At the same time this argument buys into the notion of normality being something worth striving for. The reality is that we have no control over how normal we are in the first place, even if we are conceived in the traditional way. In schools all over the world children are picked on because of race, a funny looking nose, disabilities, the clothes they wear and even the marriage status of their parents. Today no-one would seriously advise parents against having children of a ‘mixed race' because society wouldn't approve, or against breaking up an abusive marriage because their children would suffer prejudice. All we can do to protect our children against discrimination is to equip them with the skills to overcome it and see it for what it is. In many ways that challenge is one we face almost every day, for some in small ways, for others in a much more profound manner. Every time a straight couple decide to have a child they risk producing an offspring that will fall prey to society's notion of normality.

Yes, the impact of a technique such of cloning needs to be looked in light of it's impact on the children that it will produce, but it remains in society's hands to adapt, change and accept those that may traditionally not fit in. This seems to generally happen quite naturally on many levels. Children born from the in-vitro fertilisation technique (test tube babies) that were seen as remarkable oddities a few decades ago are now accepted as normal children.

Evert Knoesen, director of South Africa's Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, comments, “I personally support lesbian and gay people exploring possibilities for parenthood, and they would make good parents.” On the cloning issue itself, however, Knoesen is more cautious. “With the current state of science I don't think cloning is an appropriate avenue to pursue,” he says, “It seems science is still unstable at the moment as far as cloning is concerned.”

“From an ethical and philosophical point of view,” he concludes, “It's something we still have to think about.

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