This past February the unexpected deaths of two cloned sheep hardly made the headlines amidst all the drumbeating toward a war in Iraq. The deaths, which came only weeks apart, were of Dolly, the famous sheep who became the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, and Matilda, the first cloned Australian sheep born in 2000. The proximity of the deaths was not as surprising as the way in which both sheep died, Matilda found in a gross, decomposed state, and Molly euthanized after a long bout with lung cancer.
Earlier this month, when a UN committee postponed a US-led drive for a global ban on human cloning, including medical research on stem cells, it may have been unwise for the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to propose the delay. Although embryos don’t have the same sanctity for Muslims as they do in the Christian faith, the potentially disastrous effects of cloning on human society should have been enough for Muslim countries to support the ban, especially in light of the following parable of the sheep.
Back in 1996, Dolly’s birth was considered one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the decade. Her life, however, was far from promising. In a period of six years, half the life span of normal sheep, she suffered from a slew of medical problems from severe arthritis to abnormal obesity. In 1999, it was discovered that Dolly’s chromosomes were 20% shorter than that of other sheep her age. This meant that Dolly’s biological age could be twice that of her mother’s. Autopsy results showed that her death was actually linked to premature aging and other genetic defects that were caused by the cloning process.
But as it turns out, Dolly’s fate is no less different from other clones. From the time of their conception, most clones are plagued by bad health and have higher mortality rates than non-clones. Studies in mice have shown that health problems are prevalent and that genetic defects are commonplace. Matilda’s death was more unusual because she died in a decomposed state, which is far more alarming. The causes of her death still remain a mystery because she was cremated not soon after. One of the other major drawbacks to cloning is that success rates are extremely low. In fact, Dolly was the sole surviving adult from over 270 attempts.
Both sheep, which were first paraded around as mascots for human cloning, have now become a caveat for scientists, who may need to look twice before crossing this dangerous street again. As efforts continue to result in deformed fetuses and stillbirths, it seems ever more important to reevaluate the direction in which cloning is headed. Considering that Islamic countries would probably be the last to benefit from this science, it is unimaginable to think why they would oppose the ban brought to the UN. To sacrifice what is right for the sake of politics should never be our preferred course of action. Besides, in 1997, it was determined by the Islamic Fiqh Academy, that cloning human beings would create extremely complex and intractable social and moral problems. Now that the OIC has delayed the proposition for a UN ban for two years, there is no telling what kind of anomalies we may have to witness, perhaps on our own species. Some scientists, who are avidly pursuing this line of field, have said that improvements in technology can make human cloning possible very soon, so two years, in fact, might prove a little too late.
According to Ben Mitchell, a bioethics professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago, cloning human beings is not only immoral but should be made against the law. “To subject a sheep to the consequences of cloning was cruel; to subject a human being to those consequences is criminal. And our laws should reflect that fact,” he said.
It seems that before cloning can go any further, the global community should rein in this enterprise if not to consider the ethical implications involved but more importantly to protect the subjects of its experimentation. The public should also join in on this debate and the OIC should be encouraged to reverse its position lest we all suffer the fate of poor old Dolly and Matilda.