Perfect? Apr 12th 2001 From The Economist print edition -------------------------------- STEP forward to a dinner party in 2025. Your hostess warns you that the tomatoes are the new cholesterol-reducing ones. Your host grumbles that he eats only organic food. Your gay neighbour tells you how his clone (should you think of it as his son or his brother?) is doing at school. Somebody mentions the amount that the Smiths have paid to make sure their next daughter has blue eyes. Wouldnt it have been better spent on making her musical? Somebody jokes about that couple who could have had a Margaret Thatcher clone but chose a Bill Clinton instead. On the drive back, the headlines are about attempts to raise the retirement age to 95. This is not a prophecy, merely a set of possibilities that the revolution in genetic science might throw up. Would such a world horrify you, inspire you, liberate you, disgust you? Perhaps a combination of all these emotions. Genetic science does not pose just the normal questions of how we should regulate any new technology. It also presents ethical and political challenges, many of which cut across the traditional barriers of liberalism and conservatism. If America is a guide (see article), then most politicians are floundering to understand what may be just around the corner. The debates about genetic science tend to be ones where the extremes offer the only consistent positions. The Roman Catholic church, for instance, tends to oppose most reproductive meddling for humans, including cloning. On the other side, libertarians, the biotechnology industry and most scientists take the opposite tack: that people should be as free as possible to choose what they do with their bodies and (by extension) those of their children. The Economist, by and large, has been on the side of science. In agriculture, we have defended genetically modified food as a source of cheaper, better nutrition. In human health, biotechnology offers two magical thingsthe chance to tailor a medicine to a specific person, and the chance to prevent some diseases before they occur. On the whole, it has seemed wrong to deny people the opportunity to try these things. A laisser-faire attitude towards IVF has, for instance, already helped countless childless couples have children. But scepticism, not just of ideological creeds but also of technology, is also part of liberalism. It is not illiberal to draw a few lines around a technology that so many people feel queasy about and about which so little is yet known. And it is not illiberal to worry about the rights of the children whom parents may be tempted to try to perfect. Begin with two easy decisions. First, every country should have some equivalent of Britains Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)a permanent independent regulatory overseer, composed of scientists and ethicists, that reports to the health ministry. This may involve a little more red tape. But it forces scientists to justify what they are doing as necessary and desirable every time they leap ahead. And it is surely preferable to the American system, where the governments only hold over the industry comes through dictating how public money can be spent. Voters will not be happy that their government did nothing to stop something horrible happening in a laboratory just because it happened in a private-sector one. Next, those authorities should impose a moratorium on reproductive human cloning.This is not a matter of ethical choice but, as with our opposition to xenotransplantation (putting animal organs into humans), of safety. In principle, human cloning is easy: find a donor egg, suck out the nucleus, inject a cell from the person whom you wish to copy, encourage it to start growing. In practice there are big technical hurdles. Only around one in 20 animal clones survives; many come with terrible deformities. That sort of success rate is tolerable with flies and sheep; not so with humans. And now, the hard part That still leaves the much harder ethical question of whether developments like cloning (even if safe) and genetic modification are welcome. Here, the correct starting-point is that it is up to the opponents of cloning to make their case, not its protagonists: the burden of proof should lie with those who would regulate or ban. However, this approach should not imply that this burden is impossible to meet. The case for most sorts of human cloning is simple and similar to IVF: it will allow people who cannot reproduce to do so. Critics argue that enormous numbers of clones would pose worries about the strength of humans as a species; sex, they say, is there for a purpose. Yet it would take millions of clones to have much impact on the health of a species that already numbers six billion. It is also unlikely that many couples will choose cloning over old-fashioned procreation. Indeed, current prejudice already suggests that many will believe clones to be somehow inferior to other humans. The more general fear is that cloning represents a form of despotism over future generations. Cloning will not produce a perfect copy. A clone will merely have the same genes as his father or mother. Produced in a different womb and growing up at a different time than his forebear, a clone may (we dont know) be much less similar than an identical twin. Cloning will create individuals. Yet that fact alone does not mean that all sorts of cloning would be welcome from the childs point of view. Who would want to be that Margaret Thatcher clone? In general, the further cloning veers from being simply a treatment for the otherwise infertile towards being an attempt to stamp predetermined characteristics on your offspring, the more legitimate the fears about parental despotism lookand the more regulators should be tempted to intervene. The same sort of linebetween (welcome) medical treatment and (inadvisable) parental perfectionismshould also be drawn in the separate and more complicated field of pre-birth genetic modification. Parents can already select which particular embryos to implant, so as to screen out specific diseases. In the longer run, modifying those embryos offers a chance to practise a form of benign eugenics: for parents to eliminate undesirable traits from their children. So long as those traits are medical conditions, this seems acceptable: why deprive children of the chance to live without Parkinsons disease? But the queasy feeling takes over once parents start eradicating character traits such as homosexuality, or actively selecting good genesathleticism, tallness, a high IQ. Of course, parents have always tried to determine their childrens genes. Aristotle advised men to tie off their left testicle to guarantee a male child. But genetically modifying embryos surely marks a new departurea potential loss of dignity and of autonomy. A child who is required to take up piano lessons by his parents can later give them up; he cannot change the fact that they made him ten inches taller. While setting out such fears, it is vital to recognise both that they will be hard to translate into regulations and, more important, that the fears may prove misplaced. By any reasonable measure, the new eugenics, based on individual choice, represents a far more benevolent regime than the old racist sort. Governments should be open-minded about these developments, but cautious and questioning as well. Society needs to beware scientific hubris on one side and blind fear of the new on the other. As ever, scepticism and pragmatism, the great liberal virtues, will be the best guide.