Resurrecting Good Science: What’s Wrong With Human Cloning

C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D.


C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., is a member of the Center for Bioethics and Culture executive committee, editor of the journal Ethics & Medicine, and teaches bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois.

Panos Zavos announced at the end of August that he had created embryonic clones of two dead persons. This is neither the first hyper-sensational claim by Dr. Zavos, nor is it likely to be the last. Earlier in the year he reported he had transferred cloned embryos into a woman’s uterus. He also maintains he created bovine-human hybrid embryos, though he has not tried to implant them.

Zavos has made it clear to the entire world that he intends to keep his name in the headlines at least once every couple of months by making some fantastic claim about his cloning prowess. He so desperately wants to go down in history as a cloning pioneer that he is willing to break all the rules of good science, stopping short so far of breaking the law. So far his efforts have gained him the title, “Quack Doctor.”

I had the surreal experience of participating in a Kentucky Public Television panel discussion with Dr. Zavos just after news of the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997. In the green room just before the program, Zavos made a remark that sends chills up my spine to this day. Said Zavos, “I don’t have time to think about the ethics of what I am doing. I’ll leave that to someone else. I’m too busy pushing the scientific envelope.”

If there was ever a time research science could do its work in a moral vacuum, this is not the time.

The canons of good science include ethical review before research using human subjects is performed and peer review of scientific and moral findings after research. These principles have been developed over many years and against the backdrop of some horrific abuses of human beings in scientific research, from Nazi Germany to Tuskegee, Alabama, and beyond.

Architects of the Human Genome Project taught us well that emerging technologies require vigilant ethical scrutiny. So they included funding for the exploration of the ethical, legal, and social implications of human genetics in the funding of the effort to map the human genetic blueprint. Surely, cloning, embryonic stem cell research, germ line genetic engineering, cybernetics, nanotechnology and the other burgeoning biotechnologies require even more scrupulous ethical oversight and scientific discipline.

Aristotle’s “golden mean” may be a helpful guide here. We certainly need courageous science. But the extremes are to be avoided at all costs. Neither cowardice nor foolhardiness ought to characterize scientific research.

“Pushing the scientific envelope,” as Dr. Zavos put it, can be a noble enterprise. Doing so without moral, religious, legal, and social reflection is hazardous to us all.

Rather than employing his scientific skills to resurrect the dead, Dr. Zavoss time would be better spent resurrecting good science.

I think I know where to start. Let’s begin with that most ancient of medico-scientific injunctions: primum non nocere (first, do no harm). Once Dr. Zavos can be certain that no human is harmed in his research or through its entailments, he can truly employ science in the interest of humanity. As long as any human being is harmed through his research — including human embryos — Dr. Zavos will be a dangerous glory-seeker rather than a good scientist.


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