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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2002

On Thursday, February 14, the nation learned that Texas A&M had successfully cloned a cat. Blissfully ignorant of her high-tech origins, the kitten, named "CC:" for "carbon copy," played happily with the researchers who had created her.

Just as when Dolly the sheep first came into existence, discussions about human cloning quickly ensued. Now that a pet animal has been cloned, the possibility of human cloning has come to seem far more immediate, and the issue has taken on a greater urgency. There is a reason for that - the similarity between what motivates pet and human cloning, respectively.

Many have an instinctive aversion to the idea of human cloning on the ground that it seems like "playing God" or seems otherwise sinful. That aversion, however, also has a strong justification that is independent of subjective moral or religious visions.

Why Farm Animals Would Be Cloned

Consider the motivations behind cloning a sheep. People breed sheep with the intention of shearing their wool, making clothing out of their skin, and eating their flesh. Thus, sheep would likely be cloned in order to improve the quality of the wool, leather and flesh humans take from them.

Cloning sheep would thus resemble the mass production of seedless oranges: genetic engineering designed to increase the pleasure and value humans get from property. Though Dolly was given a name and many admired her as an individual sheep, she was exceptional in that regard. Most sheep live as things to be used. They are thought to have little or no inherent value, from the moment they are birthed until the day they are slaughtered.

Why Pets (Or People) Would be Cloned

The motivation for wanting to clone a pet is very different from those for cloning farm animals - for pets are not seen simply as a means to an end, or a body that yields products for human consumption. Rather, pets are part of the family, and though they are often abused and mistreated, they are also often loved.

Granted, our relationship with pets is complicated by our willingness to treat most animals (including "research" cats and dogs) as things to be used. As I discussed in an earlier column, this is why some people expressed outrage when a man was sentenced to three years in prison for killing a dog - which was, to them, merely property, though in fact so much more.

Like the woman whose dog was killed in that case, many people see their pets as far more than property. They take great pleasure simply in spending time with their pets, playing with them, snuggling with them, and basking in the warmth of their love and attachment. Such pleasure is similar to the pleasure a parent takes in interacting with an infant or a young child.

By the same token, when a pet dies, the "owner" can feel pain and loss, in the way one feels pain and loss upon the death of a child or a beloved sibling. The truth is that animals inspire a profound depth of feeling in many of those with whom they live.

Accordingly, the desire to clone one's pet is the desire to cheat death, to make a cherished loved one live longer, or to bring back a friend to whom one has had to say goodbye. We can all understand such a wish.

A similar impulse will account for much of the demand for cloned human beings. In fact, the members of one religious group calling themselves the Railians say they are working with a couple wishing to clone the ten-month-old child they lost.

Of course, the desire somehow to resurrect one's lost child is understandable. It is difficult not to feel compassion and empathy for a person who harbors this wish. Yet in the end, cloning could never fulfill such a hope, and may inflict a fair amount of emotional damage, to both the parents and the child, in the attempt.

Cloning and False Hope

DNA is not everything. A clone is not in fact the same creature as the "original." And this is true in two different respects.

First, and most obvious, our environments shape who we are, and that is no less true for pets than for human beings. Events that take place from as early as in the womb help fashion the individuals we will all become.

Second, even if two creatures truly could be identical, they would still be two creatures, entitled to be loved and valued each in her own right. They would not be "the same person" any more than identical twins are the same person. (Indeed, because identical twins at least share similar environments, clones might be even more different in their hopes and dreams than typical identical twins).

The problem of asking a new loved one to fill the void left by another raises issues that existed long before clones. And the hope offered by the promise of a true replacement will only make the pain of disappointment that much worse when reality dawns.

The Senate is currently considering a legal ban on human cloning passed by the House of Representatives in July. It deserves widespread support.

The law cannot require us to treat every human being (or every animal) as unique, special, and irreplaceable. But the law can, at least, place limits on a technology that encourages and exploits a hope that is as false as it is understandable. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I know the burden of trying to make up for those who were lost, and it is not a burden I would wish on anyone.

Cloned children should not have to bear the burden of trying to replace their tragically lost siblings - and parents should not have to go through the false hope and crushing disappointment of realizing that the children they have lost cannot be replaced. As we learned after the horrors of September 11, people who lose family members need closure - not false hope. To mourn a loved one is difficult enough without the illusion that perhaps a scientist will one day bring him back.

Sherry F. Colb is a visiting professor at University of Pennsylvania and a professor at Rutgers Law School.

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