Mad Science: Danger and Deceit in Animal Cloning
Pet cloning is here. The California-based company Genetic Savings & Clone recently introduced the first “consumer grade” clones of household pets. If you’ve got a few tens of thousands saved up, you can get a genetically engineered kitten made from your original pet, whose complete genetic code can be copied in a laboratory.
The idea that we can manipulate the structure of living beings, the groundwork for modern biotech, took hold thousands of years ago. Thus, scientists who work in genetic engineering defend their creations by saying that their work simply continues the domestication that we have carried out for millennia.
But British bioethicist Richard Twine, speaking at last year’s Foundations of a Movement conference in New York, suggested a bright-line distinction between, on one hand, the engineering done by breeders for farms and the pet industry and, on the other hand, the engineering scientists do when they directly manipulate genes. Cloning and other laboratory genetic modifications involve a new layer of control by elite experts, and an unprecedented way of changing the structures of life. Thus, these new modes of engineering can and must be addressed head-on, and people should not be able to dismiss the argument by saying we’ve always done it this way. We haven’t, says Twine.
Nevertheless, if domination and control is at the core of cloning, then the basis of the problem is indeed the public’s willingness to accept the use of animals in the first place; and that is willingness that we, as ethical human beings, need to acknowledge and question.
In the decade that’s passed since the appearance of the sheep clone Dolly, scientists have paraded forth with numerous cloned mammals, including cattle, mice, goats, pigs, and cats. Less discussed are the setbacks. But those have been frequent, with death and deformity as the rule rather than the exception.
Some U.S. animal protectionists, including the American Anti-Vivisection Society, believe that cloning can and should be regulated under the Animal Welfare Act, the federal law that specifies minimum husbandry standards for institutions using animals. The society even filed a petition to encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make this official.
But if cloning starts being regulated under the act, that’s essentially hardening the practice into accepted law. This position concedes far too much — particularly in light of policies elsewhere. In Britain, the government rejects applications to clone pets. The U.S. government should do the same.
Proponents of cloning will defend their work to animal advocates by promising benefits not just for humans but for the animals themselves. Some scientists claim that biotechnology will stave off extinctions, citing as visible proof eight young wildcats bred from clones last summer by the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species. These cats are prizes to scientists: products of the first normal reproduction of clones of free-living species — or, indeed, of any cats. The cats belong to the research complex; but as kittens, they’ll be an attraction at the Audubon Zoo.
This project fails to appreciate the interests of wildcats to live in their own ways, rather than as zoo exhibits or laboratory specimens. And as cloning cannot address habitat degradation or other causes of accelerated extinctions, it’s possible that the cats’ descendants will be saved simply to live in the same type of confinement.
Above all, cloners are working for the multi-billion dollar agribusiness sectors. The patents granted to the creators of Dolly now belong to ViaGen, Texas corporation that produces cloned pigs and cows in order to advertise juicier steaks and tastier chops, and dairy cattle capable of huge milk yields. The company’s promoters have been emboldened by a 2002 National Academy of Science report, which concluded that products derived from cloned animals do not “present a food safety concern.”
ViaGen’s founder, Scott Davis, echoes the views of the pet cloning company, declaring, “Cloning is at a commercially viable place now.”
Biotechnologists to the world, U.S. producers generate most of the bioengineered products used in global agribusiness. Pet cloning is a whimsical byproduct of this industry, and perhaps it will be a lucrative one. Genetic Savings expects to cater to dog owners soon, and it just might. In August, scientists announced the cloning of an Afghan hound, winning an Invention of the Year award from Time. Vested interests are strong, and the media, especially in the United States, have been happy to jump on the bandwagon. Oddly enough, the biggest threats to the prestige of the cloning scientists have come from their own household.
Scandal in the Lab
South Korean cloning researcher Hwang Woo-suk has fallen from the scientific pedestal with a thud heard round the world. Dr. Hwang had claimed to have achieved two firsts: the cloned Afghan pup, and cloned human embryos, derived from cells from people with juvenile diabetes, spinal injuries, and genetic immune deficiencies. Now, all of that work is under scrutiny.
Doubts began to surface over a year ago, when Dr. Hwang admitted to having broken ethical guidelines by procuring human eggs from university employees. Then, experts found that Hwang falsified at least nine of eleven stem cell lines announced in a research paper published in the May 2005 issue of Science. Dr. Robert Lanza, a rival cloning expert with biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., said Hwang’s dog cloning work should now be considered suspect.
The “senior author” on Hwang’s much-vaunted 2005 cloning report is Professor Gerald Schatten at the University of Pittsburgh, a former researcher at the Oregon and Wisconsin National Primate Research Centers. The article described how South Korean researchers used DNA from people with illnesses to clone 11 human embryos and extract stem cells — cells capable of developing into a wide range of cell types.
Some hailed Hwang’s work for giving hope to sufferers of spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease, who hoped for tailor-made replacement tissues. Others were outraged over the manipulation of cells taken from human embryos. But generally, Hwang was hailed as a hero. U.S. and British stem cell scientists were so impressed that Hwang was expected to win a Nobel prize, and support grew for Hwang’s World Stem Cell Hub project, launched last year, which envisioned California and Oxford labs in addition to a laboratory in Korea. Dr. Schatten, who touted Hwang’s scientific prowess in numerous media interviews, quickly became a candidate to head the Oxford laboratory.
After the web of deceit was detangled, Dr. Hwang was forced to quit the post at South Korea’s leading school, Seoul National University. Hwang’s resignation has been greeted with shock and dismay in South Korea, shock and dismay that ought to have greeted the scientist’s grotesque manipulation of animals. And as for the “senior author,” Schatten’s past research represented a lot of suffering for primates and a lot of taxpayers’ money down the drain, including a recent National Institutes of Health grant of $6.4 million for a series of failed cloning experiments on monkeys.
We Told Them So
Scientists are vulnerable to pressures, both political and financial. Doing one’s research means getting money, and demonstrating the prowess that attracts funding means publishing. As reported last June in Nature, when 3,247 U.S. scientists were asked if they had ever changed the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source, more than 15 percent confessed they had. 
But let’s ask whether another factor is involved here. Is it so surprising when researchers who manipulate conscious beings for a living wind up manipulating other university employees, and ultimately the general public? Any systematic form of domination and control comes with claims of natural or divine prescription — the idea that humanity can and should treat all other beings on Earth as mere resources. The concept that scientists are entitled to plenty of living beings to experiment with along the road to fame and fortune is not all that far removed from the impulse to objectify humans in order to gain personal rewards. Indeed, scientists have acknowledged that, with regard to stem cell experimentation, there is no ethical bright line between the use of human beings and the use of other primates.
As advocates, we must not wind up as mere rubber stamps to these actions. Finding the best meaning of animal rights begins with identifying, to the extent possible, the fundamental interests of the animals themselves. Let’s be clear, then: Applying dubious humane protections won’t mitigate the dastardly wrongs done to animals used in biotechnology. Animal rights advocacy at its best means respecting animals’ autonomy. And this is why pet cloning, no matter how it might be regulated, represents the antithesis of animal rights.
The first cat clone, featured on Genetic Savings & Clone’s Web site, lives with cloning scientist Duane Kraemer. Regarding clones, Kraemer says: “They’re special parts of my life. I revere them.”
We can predict that the company’s customers will express similar sentiments. It’s appropriate to think long and hard about this perspective, because it’s everywhere around us — from the birds in the cage to the blue ribbons at the county fair. When did humanity lose sight of the idea that the other animals of the world, like people, have inherent worth and dignity, independent of our lives?
- “Company Wants Meat of Cloned Animals on the Menu” - Billings Gazette (AP; 9 Oct. 2005).
- An investigation determined that his team split cells from one person into two test tubes, which they then deceptively claimed to have come from different sources: one real, one cloned. Jonathan Watts and Ian Sample, “Cloning Fraud Hits Search for Stem Cell Cures” - The Guardian (24 Dec. 2005).
- “U.S. Cloning Researcher Tainted by Scandal” — CBS News (AP; 16 Dec. 2005).
- James Randerson, “Rise and Fall of Clone King Who Doctored Stem-Cell Research” - The Guardian (24 Dec. 2005).
- Ten years ago, a criminal investigation reached Schatten’s lab at the University of Wisconsin, which was receiving eggs that had been illegally obtained from women for research without their consent. One doctor was convicted in the case, and two others fled the country, although Schatten was cleared, said to be unaware of the wrongdoing.
- This point was recently discussed in the editorial “Research Versus the Faker” in the Sydney Morning Herald (1 Feb. 2006 ).