The announcement in February 1997 that British scientists had cloned a sheep turned the medical world upside down, Ian Wilmut and his colleagues had taken cells from an adult sheep’s udder and removed the nucleus from each. They then implanted this genetic material into a specially prepared sheep ovum from which the nucleus had been removed. Out of 277 ova, 13 developed into embryos and were implanted into surrogate mother ewes. Twelve miscarried, but one survived: Dolly.

Gina Kolata, a science writer for the New York Times, was the first to break the story of Dolly to the American public. To her, when the history of our age is written, “the creation of this little lamb will stand out.” Comparing it to, say, the conquest of smallpox doesn’t do it justice, she says, for “events that alter our very notion of what it means to be human are few and scattered over the centuries.”

Kolata points out the ironic situation of those medical ethicists and theologians who began to examine the implications of cloning in the 1960’s, long before it seemed feasible. Scientists told them to stop their frightening talk about human cloning, since it would never happen and since funding for medical research in general could be hurt. Many ethicists, cowed by the charge of impeding medical progress, lost the chance to make an early public case against cloning. George Annas, a Boston University law professor who favors legislation prohibiting human cloning and who testified at a Senate hearing following the Dolly announcement, says “we know where we are going and . . . can ask—for one of the few times in history — do we want to go there?” Yet halting the process will become increasingly difficult. Scientists can manufacture moral excuses and will have the financial motivation to proceed with developing cloning technology, ban or no ban.

We have yet to see the long-term impact of human manipulation of plant and animal genetics; it could be devastating. The scientific trail to Dolly, however, is a fascinating one. It leads through experiments on frog eggs, gene transfers in mice, attempts at making the perfect cow, and, finally, to Wilmut’s project of producing whole herds of identical genetically engineered sheep whose milk will produce large quantities of human insulin, blood-clotting agents, and other protein drugs. The ethical questions, however, permeate a different world: that of “advanced assisted reproductive techniques” (infertility treatments) and abortion.

Tracing the relevant histories of molecular biology, embryology, and assisted reproduction, Kolata does a brilliant job of turning highly technical research into accurate and readable prose for the general reader. Her one mention of abortion is related to the cloning variation described by an anonymous physician who proposes to develop the technology whereby a woman incapable of producing any ova has her genes inserted into a donor egg. This cloned embryo could be implanted into her body and allowed to grow, then aborted. The ovaries could be removed from the fetus to harvest the ova (genetically identical to the woman, of course, since the fetus was a clone). One of these ova could be fertilized with her husband’s sperm and the resulting embryo implanted into the woman. Both parents thus get to reproduce, overcoming the small problem of the woman’s complete infertility.

Although Kolata admits that this “may seem risky and futuristic” and that, “of course, abortion opponents would object,” her passing reference to this “strange” proposal is telling. She, like most Americans, fails to understand that abortion-on-demand and “advanced assisted reproductive techniques” such as surrogate mothers, sperm banks, and test tube conceptions are two sides of the same theoretical coin of absolute reproductive freedom. In practice as in theory, creation and destruction are already entwined in assisted reproduction through the disposal of unwanted embryos in the lab, through “sex-selection” abortion, through “selective pregnancy reduction” to ensure that a woman only has one or two babies rather than octuplets, and through the abortion of genetically abnormal fetuses (which occur in higher numbers with assisted reproduction).

Kolata devotes ample space to the well-reasoned arguments of human cloning opponents. Narcissism, pride, the desire to manipulate one’s children, the attempt somehow to escape death, the vanity of wanting to be one’s own creator, the danger and immorality of creating cloned people someone hopes to mold and control—all are held up to the light. She even holds out the possibility that we as a society will choose not to clone humans. Yet the widespread and unthinking cultural and political acceptance of both advanced reproduction assistance and abortion makes human cloning inevitable, barring an insurmountable technical hurdle.

Theologian Paul Ramsey says “the good things that men do can be made complete only by the things they refuse to do.” Though this is sound advice for our Brave New World, nothing seems more fruitless than a call for self-restraint.


[Clone: The Road to Dolly, and the Path Ahead, by Gina Kolata (New York: William Morrow) 276 pp., $23.00]