Reproductive Science Debates Remain Male Bastion

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Commentator Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–The controversy over stem cell research continues to grab headlines to the point where Pope John Paul II entered the fray and lobbied President George W. Bush to ban federal funding for it. Bush said he would make up his mind later.

Note please the gender of these two discussants.

A related reproductive technology, which relies on human embryos as well, is not receiving quite as much press right now, but continues to be the subject of intense lobbying efforts to address moral, ethical and scientific concerns.

Human clones would be produced by removing the DNA from a human embryo, thus stripping it of its unique characteristics. The DNA of a donor cell would be substituted, and implanted in a woman’s uterus to carry the embryo until it becomes a fetus and eventually an infant, the identical twin of the donor, a generation removed.

Ever since scientists in Scotland created “Dolly,” a sheep that was an exact copy of an existing animal, the question of human cloning has been a persistent subject of public debate. Just last month, Millie, the third cow cloned in the United States, was found dead in a pasture at the University of Tennessee, once again raising questions about the safety of the cloning process. The cow was apparently healthy and her death remains a mystery, but other cloned animals have had weak immune systems or suffered from mysterious and massive obesity.

This year an international team of doctors announced it would try to produce the first human clone, despite the protests of many in the mainstream scientific community. And a sect called the Raelians that believes in UFOs has announced its intention to create a clone from the cells of a dead child.

Whether science should proceed with trying to clone human beings has become an international scientific question.

Unfortunately, the discussants by and large are of the same gender as the pope and the president.

Clearly, cloning would be of enormous consequence to women, but the places where decisions are made on such issues are notorious for having few women. Men are nearly always in charge of major biotech companies, research hospitals, privately funded research teams and large government bureaucracies. Women’s concerns easily get lost.

Male Scientists Focus on Cloning to Overcome Male Infertility

In fact, the team that has announced the effort to produce the first human clone, including scientists from Italy, Israel, the United States and Austria, called their efforts “the last frontier in attempts to overcome male infertility.”

Panos Zavos, who runs a fertility clinic in Lexington, Ky., said the team was concerned about men who cannot produce sperm and therefore can’t have children who are genetically related to them. “It’s a dead-end street, it’s a stop sign, if you’re one of those males that face this particular difficulty. You think, ‘God, why me? Why do I have to borrow sperm in order to get a child?'”

But what risks are legitimate in order to give men their “own” children? After all, such men can raise children with their wives through in vitro fertilization. Should we leap into the unknown just to give men children who look like them?

Experts point out that the technology of cloning is far from perfect. In animals, no more than three percent of cloning attempts are successful, and the clones that have been produced often have major developmental problems–heart and lung defects and flawed immune systems. Perhaps most frightening, cloned animals that seem normal at birth can develop unforeseen and major problems later on. Cloned mice, for unknown reasons, can become grossly fat as adults. Cloned cows have been known to develop enlarged hearts or lungs.

And what happens if a human infant clone were born with serious defects? Who would care for it? The doctors on the international team? Hardly. Most likely the child’s mother would bear the burden, or it would be cared for in a hospital where underpaid women make up much of the staff delivering care. Look at who cares for our mental patients.

Cloning would also produce a need for female bodies to be the “walking labs” to produce the babies. Who would these women be? As is often the case with surrogate mothers, the women would most likely be poor or working class women who need the quick cash. When you break this job down to an hourly wage, these women earn less than the children who make sneakers in Bangladesh. And while some surrogate mothers change their minds about wanting to keep the babies they have borne and go to court, “mothers” of clones would have no legal standing. They bear no genetic relationship to the infant they have delivered. They are basically rental space.

Most Clones Would Be Men: Michael Jordan, not Rebecca Lobo

And just who would be cloned, anyway? Since in nearly all societies males make more money and fill top jobs, males would most likely constitute the majority of clones. Who would we clone first, Michael Jordan or Rebecca Lobo?

In a survey of infertile couples conducted by a member of the international team, 30 percent of the fathers unable to conceive because they lacked sperm said they would consider cloning rather than using “borrowed” sperm. Yet when it was the mother who was infertile, 98 percent of the fathers said they would choose to implant borrowed eggs. It’s significant that the international team didn’t offer cloning as a solution to the problem of “female sterility.”

Male problems get more attention and more funding. Viagra, for example, is routinely covered by insurance companies while female contraception is not. Society finds it more urgent that men be able to achieve orgasm than for women to be able to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

In much of the world, male babies are much more desired than females. Cloning would be a way for men to insure a male heir. In China, for example, nearly all the abandoned babies are girls, under the nation’s one-child policy. Widespread cloning could alter the sex ratio of boys to girls, which nature arranges quite well.

Males may feel more entitled to announce they want to be cloned than women. Although women are probably no less egotistical, self-involved and narcissistic than men, displays of ego by women are more harshly punished. Research shows that, from second grade to the executive suite, “show-offy” behavior by women is frowned upon. The same behavior by men is more easily tolerated.

Already several men, including an 84-year-old mathematician from Sydney, Australia, have announced they want to be cloned. A database search finds no women making such a request. The Sydney man said, “I want my genes to go forward. It’s a natural instinct. People accept that women have a maternal instinct, but a man has this paternal instinct too.” But of course, an 84-year-old man would not be likely to be around long enough to get involved in much “paternal” behavior.

Ominously, a Clone Would Always Walk in the Shadows of Another Life

Perhaps the most ominous aspect of cloning is that the clone would always walk in the shadow of another life.

One of the great gifts of the human species is our individuality. Every baby is a fresh start, a combination of genes that has never existed before. The cloned child would not have this gift. In some cases, parents may want to “replace” a dead child with its clone, giving the illusion that the dead child can live again. But the new child will not be the same child. What if his or her personality, or athletic ability, is not the same, despite genetic similarities? After all, identical twins often choose different careers, and develop different traits.

Will parents withdraw, or put pressure–no matter how subtle–on the child to be more like its dead “twin”? What pressures would a mother face, raising a clone that is the exact twin of her husband, years younger? And what impact would it have on a child to know he or she will grow up to be a carbon copy of a parent?

All these are critical questions that women need to examine, along with men. In the United States, a blue-ribbon panel of scientists and ethicists, on which women are well represented, should decide whether to outlaw the cloning of human beings. And also whether certain cloning technologies, such as the development of replacement organs, should continue.

Leaving this issue to the marketplace or to the egos of scientists eager for a breakthrough that will make them famous would be a big mistake.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

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