The announcement earlier this week of the existence of Dolly the clone sheep put the world nose to nose with a science fiction-turned reality, a reality it is unprepared for.
With the first clone of a warm-blooded, complex animal, the question surfaces: Can the same techniques that produced Dolly produce one of us, not by the loving embrace of parents, but through cloning?
To start a clone, the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, stripped an egg of its DNA. Without the male contribution, an egg contains only half of the genetic blueprint of its future offspring. The egg was then pseudo-fertilized with a complete complement of DNA taken from a 6-year-old sheep, the clone-donor. After the clone grew a little, it was implanted in a surrogate mother. The result was Dolly, now 7 months old.
While cloning of animals may have benefits in creating pharmacological proteins, such as the blood-clotting factor hemophiliacs need, cloning of humans is a qualitatively different question.
"This is not just a single issue where we can look at it and say maybe we should or shouldn't, as though there were some magical line drawn across," said Kevin Murrell, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia.
"We are basically moving further and further from our understanding, awe and respect for human beings and from the understanding of man as two sexes," said Dr. Murrell. He sees the interaction between the sexes as the God-given way of teaching love, self-sacrifice, care, nurture and education.
Dharm Sinha, another assistant professor of psychiatry at MCG and a Hindu, said he believes cloning for humans would have a negative impact on society and on mankind. It would cause "a cleavage, a destabilization in every value system," he said.
"In science everything is possible, although we may not know the key to discovering it. Rather than ask, `Is it possible or not,' we have to ask, `Is it right?' In my opinion, no," because of the differences between mankind and animals, said Dr. Sinha. An animal, for example, does not have reason, cannot know right from wrong. An emotion, a sexual emotion, can surface in us, "but we do not express it immediately because we have reason," he said.
Science has made great improvements in relieving pain and suffering because of animal experiments, he said, but he also thinks there are limits to research, even with animals.
Other questions swirl around the Dolly event.
"Do you have a baby so that your father who has Parkinson's can have that substantia nigra part of the brain that you can implant to perhaps treat that?" asked Richard M. Martin, who teaches ethics at the Medical College of Georgia.
"No, we don't do that. I hope we don't ever get to that."
Although not a physician, Dr. Martin has a doctorate in ethics, a master of divinity and a law degree.
Ethical and spiritual aspects of cloning also are troubling to area pastors, rabbis and priests.
"The ethical issue is on the use, and that is what I think we are unprepared for," said the Rev. Daniel Munn of St. Ignatius Catholic Church. " We don't have a moral consensus in the country, as evidenced by abortion and euthanasia. So it's going to be very difficult to come up with a working set of guidelines for ethical research and development.
"So I fear that, as with most things in this country, the morality of the issue will be determined by law, judicial and legislative," with the tilt toward the judicial.
The Roslin Institute had several hundred failures before its one success, Dolly. There is nothing to suggest that scientists would do any better trying to clone humans.
"Certainly, at least, until it is at a point of - not perfection - but at a point of reliability, it seems to me, to create embryos and discard them cavalier," said Dr. Martin.
"In the creative process, the Catholic Church doesn't even approve of shutting God out of the bedroom, which is what you do with contraception," said the Rev. Munn. "It certainly doesn't approve of shutting the parents out, which is what happens when a little baby is made in a saucer.
"Clearly, man is created to be in the image of God in a society of human beings. ... It is a pattern in the very nature of personal relationship which is God."
The Rev. Munn said some countries will not hesitate to allow experimentation with human cloning, but he contends that it is unlikely this country will speed down that road.
"There will be certain people who will want to do the experiments," said Dr. Martin, "to develop the children for various reasons. There will be people who see it as an ego trip, as a way of preserving geniuses, eugenics. It's a brave new world out there."
Dr. Murrell sees human cloning as a road the world should walk away from.
"These are strange times. It is really eerie sometimes to sit back and see what's going on," he said. "We are not going to be able to protect ourselves very well from the imposition of some of these technologies or the fact that a lot of folks will see these technologies as useful to them or to their ideologies."
"We will see cloning of humans," said the Rev. Dr. Frank Page, who holds a doctorate in ethics and serves as pastor of Warren Baptist Church. Some will hold out the hope of bringing back an Einstein or some other extraordinary individual, "saying, `Look what we would be able to do,"' he said. "But if you did that, you would also open the door to cloning some of the most infamous characters in history. Technology has surpassed our morality."
Rabbi Gary Atkins of Adas Yeshurun related the story of the Golem, a sort of science fiction from Jewish tradition. A rabbi formed a man from clay and wrote the name of God across it. The Golem came to life but was a monster. The rabbi was able to "wipe the name of God off the Golem and deactivate it," said Rabbi Atkins.
Although Drs. Martin and Murrell believed a cloned human would have a soul, the Rev. Munn doubted it would, as did Dr. Page and Rabbi Atkins.
While human cloning hasn't been examined in Jewish ethics, "because no one had thought it could be done," he said, there are two lines of thought that he believes address the issue. From the Jewish perspective, there is a great fear of eugenics, manipulating human beings for even a purported good. That was behind much of the Jewish suffering under Hitler.
The second reason has to do with the very heart of God as creator, "the fear that we are truly playing God," he said.
"Jewish teaching says that there are three partners" in procreation - God and the parents, he said.
There is another Jewish principle that he believes applies to Dolly's case. It is that "anything that can be done to save a life should be done. I feel safe in saying that if cloning is used on animal forms that it would be OK," he said.