Personal Health

Back From the Dead: What Dog Cloning Means for Our Human Future

Humans could be on a slippery slope towards Gattaca-like eugenics.
Good Morning America recently televised a world exclusive that caught many pet owners' attention: Dog cloning is now commercially available for people who want to bring their dead and dying companions back to life. Brought to you by BioArts International, a Northern California biotech startup, man and his dead best friend can now be, as the company's marketing slogan states, "Best Friends Again." And again. And again.

But it'll cost you. Rather than taking orders, BioArts will auction off five dog cloning slots in mid-June. Bids start at $100,000.

Despite Good Morning America's numerous awards for excellence in televised journalism, its coverage of this story was not its finest moment. A number of omissions and oversights led the segment to present dog cloning as a largely unproblematic way to deal with the grief of our pets' inevitable deaths. But several untold stories behind this story need to be put front and center.

The ABC morning show presented BioArts' CEO Lou Hawthorne as the next in a long line of pioneering Californian bio executives. But rather than being a new venture worthy of a televised exclusive, Hawthorne's company is an old dog's old trick. As recently as three years ago, Hawthorne headed a pet cloning company that offered $50,000 cloned cats. The effort was stunningly unsuccessful: After swallowing millions of investor dollars and being forced to refund many thousands to unsatisfied customers, the company folded and Hawthorne's career as pet cloner extraordinaire seemed firmly in the graveyard.

Good Morning America's lack of due diligence concerning Hawthorne's past carried over to its coverage of his dog cloning boutique. The segment failed to mention one of the most scandalous aspects of his business plan: partnering with Hwang Woo Suk. This former South Korean celebrity-scientist turned outcast has been indicted for embezzlement and numerous ethics violations in connection to his fraudulent 2005 claim that he had derived stem cells from cloned human embryos.

Put simply, Hwang Woo Suk is biotech's Barry Bonds: someone who cheated his way to stardom and has been ostracized for it. Though Hwang legitimately cloned the first dog three years ago, going into business with him is as questionable as starting a business with former Enron executive Jeff Skilling. The very fact that Hawthorne would partner with Hwang raises red flags about his commitment to using cloning technologies ethically, which bodes poorly for the dogs involved. And Good Morning America's glossing over such grave ethical concerns is troubling to say the least.

There are concerns beyond these two men trying to resurrect their careers by resurrecting people's dead pets. In the wake of Michael Vick's conviction for abusing dogs and the numerous questions surrounding Eight Belles' broken ankles at this year's Kentucky Derby, Good Morning America paid surprisingly little attention to how reproductive cloning endangers animal welfare.

While pet cloning entrepreneurs like to flaunt cute pictures of frolicking cloned puppies, the realities of cloning are sobering. According to a review of published scientific reports on animal cloning by the Humane Society and the American Anti-Vivisection Society -- two major animal welfare groups that strongly oppose pet cloning -- "3,656 cloned embryos, more than 319 egg donors, and 214 surrogate mothers have been used to produce just five cloned dogs ... able to survive 30 days past birth."

With such high failure rates, hundreds of surrogate dogs must endure significant pain and suffering to produce one cloned puppy. And the surviving cloned animals are typically riddled with serious health problems such as kidney failure, lung problems, and premature death. In discussing the abnormal gene expression thought to cause clones' health problems and abysmal survival rate, MIT cloning expert Rudolph Jaenisch put the matter succinctly: "There may be no normal clones." Good Morning America's failure to provide dog owners this perspective is astonishing.

Pet cloning abuses animals. Period. But its implications for humans are just as grave. If cloning becomes an accepted way to deal with the death of "man's best friend" -- who is often also considered a family member -- will we start to see entrepreneurs offering this technology to deal with the grief stemming from the loss of human life, perhaps to "replace" a son or daughter? If humans lose their individuality and come to be considered replicable to suit preexisting expectations, we may very well slide down the slippery slope towards Gattaca-like eugenics.

The way to prevent a Brave New World in which these and other related technologies are used to reconfigure basic human relationships is through vigorous public debate and sensible oversight. The United States currently does not have any federal laws governing the powerful new convergence of reproductive and genetic technologies -- including human reproductive cloning. The media can play an indispensable role in educating the public on these technologies' promise and perils while providing a forum for a robust exchange of thoughts. Sadly, Good Morning America missed this opportunity by a mile.
Osagie K. Obasogie directs the project on Bioethics, Law, and Society at the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Calif. He also contributes regularly to the blog Biopolitical Times.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018