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Spyros Simitis: human cloning will mean the end of personal choice

Dr Spyros Simitis, president of the German Bioethics Committee and Frankfurt University professor, calls the attempts to clone a human being a «scientific barbarity.» Simitis has often expressed views on issues of human rights and scientific ethics. The committee he presides over, although only a year old, has played a decisive role in the German government’s stance against cloning. Are we likely to see a cloned child soon? Unfortunately, it is likely in the near future, but it is scientifically unacceptable. It would be a scientific barbarity. A few days ago, a study from the University of Pennsylvania in the USA was published that provided documented evidence that we are still far from cloning a human being without catastrophic results. Is it unacceptable because we cannot clone effectively or because the intention itself is questionable? My objection is that we are dealing with a technology that more than any other can interfere with human lives, change human beings’ genetic make-up to create «proper» or «beautiful» human beings according to our own perceptions, of course. But then we will dominate human evolution. Up to a point, that is to be expected. But when a state, a government or a society sets out to create human molds on the basis of certain criteria, to create future human beings, that will be the end of freedom. Then we will be creating people and humans will evolve within a framework set by others, excluding chance and change. Orwell’s ‘1984’ Scientists who support reproductive cloning accuse those who oppose it of having outdated views or of being religious fundamentalists. Cultural and religious traditions as well as historical experience have played a major role throughout this debate. In the past, there were similar reactions; such as in the Middle Ages when anatomy appeared. However, there is a difference. Until now, interventions have always been aimed at cure, and not at creating a society by copying certain aspects of it. The idea of cloning is a natural development of George Orwell’s «1984.» That was about controlling human beings. Now we are talking about directly intervening in the composition of human beings and creating a society that decides who is acceptable and who isn’t. What about freedom of choice in the private sector? Doesn’t a couple have the right to seek that choice? It isn’t only a personal issue. We cannot rule out a number of other factors. Take the question of insurance and longevity. Today the State and insurance companies are starting to look at what we cost, and thinking of ways to restrict those costs. It isn’t only a question of the blue eyes or blond hair parents can «order,» it is the fact that we can make human beings in a way that can be costed, to know in advance where they can be used and under what conditions. Like drought-resistant tomatoes? Exactly. That interference, which will be widespread after a while, can change our society, making the next generations controllable. Can’t the development of therapeutic cloning form the scientific underpinning for reproductive cloning? Yes, it can. I continue to have my reservations about therapeutic cloning, although it can have results that are difficult to reject, particularly as so many people are suffering from a number of diseases for which we still have no cure. However, the danger is that once we begin, we will overstep the mark and end up with reproductive cloning. That is why there has to be transparency. We have to be able to intervene. Let there be no misunderstanding, however. No one wants to tell scientists what to do. Science is about curiosity. What we all have to realize, however, more than ever before, is that science evolves within society, which has a duty to be informed and to intervene. How? Isn’t it the case that what science can do will invariably be used? No. Let’s look at another example. Today, there are a plethora of countries who want to make atomic bombs. But these countries, and most people in general, are not ready to assume the production of new atomic bombs. So, this process has ceased. There are things that are technically feasible, but are not done. You spoke about transparency and social control. Is there any hope for that given that even genes are patented? You are quite right, and that is why I think that the European Bioethics Committee’s recent proposals, which approves discoveries in blastocytes (the embryo at a very early stage), for instance, cannot be easily accepted. The State should give more funds to basic research. Otherwise the US model will prevail, where entire universities are funded exclusively by the pharmaceutical industry.