Today The Sheep...

TWENTY YEARS AGO, WHEN only the lowly tadpole had been cloned, bioethicists raised the possibility that scientists might someday advance the technology to include human beings as well. They wanted the issue discussed. But scientists assailed the moralists' concerns as alarmist. Let the research go forward, the scientists argued, because cloning human beings would serve no discernible scientific purpose. Now the cloning of humans is within reach, and society as a whole is caught with its ethical pants down.

Today the sheep-tomorrow the shepherd? Whether the cloning of human beings can be ethically justified is now firmly, perhaps permanently, on the nation's moral agenda. President Clinton has given an advisory panel of experts just 90 days to come up with proposals for government action. The government could prohibit the cloning of human beings or issue regulations limiting what researchers can do. But the government cannot control the actions of individuals or private groups determined to clone humans for whatever purpose. And science has a way of outdistancing all ethical restraints. "In science, the one rule is that what can be done will be done," warns Rabbi Moses Tendler, professor of medical ethics at Yeshiva University in Andy Warhol cloning around in 'The Twenty Marilyns' New York.

Some ethicists regard the cloning of humans as inherently evil, a morally unjustifiable intrusion into human life. Others measure the morality of any act by the intention behind it; still others are concerned primarily with the consequences-for society as well as for individuals. Father Richard McCormick, a veteran Jesuit ethicist at the University of Notre Dame, represents the hardest line: any cloning of humans is morally repugnant. A person who would want a clone of himself, says McCormick, "is overwhelmingly self-centered. One Richard McCormick is enough." But why not clone another Einstein? Once you program for producing superior beings, he says, you are into eugenics, "and eugenics of any kind is inherently discriminatory." What's wrong with duplicating a sibling whose bone marrow could save a sick child? That, he believes, is using another human being merely "as a source for replaceable organs." But why shouldn't an infertile couple resort to cloning if that is the only means of having a child? "Infertility is not an absolute evil that justifies doing any and every thing to overcome it," McCormick insists.

Other ethicists see possible exceptions to a general rule against cloning. Tendler opposes cloning on Biblical grounds. But if a sterile second-generation Holocaust survivor wanted a male heir to continue an otherwise doomed family line, the rabbi says he might advise the man to clone rather than use donor sperm. Boston College moral theologian Lisa Sowhill Cahill is "not yet convinced that cloning human beings is inherently evil." The mother of identical twins, Cahill questions whether creating a done necessarily violates the dignity of the original or of the genetic copy. As with other ethicists, what most concerns Cahill is the commodification of human beings and their genes. Forget hubris, consider commerce. What's to prevent the transfer of a dollop of DNA to a wealthy bidder who wants an especially beautiful, swift or smart child?

Beyond the arguments of experts, the nation's religious communities "will play an important role in the national debate over cloning," says Quaker ethicist James Childress, a member of the president's advisory panel. All theologians agree that a clone would have a soul like everyone else. Although the pope has yet to address the cloning issue, the Vatican has repeatedly condemned the use of human embryos for nontherapeutic purposes--which is what cloning requires. Islamic courts have not ruled on cloning, either, but Muslim scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina, a medical ethicist at the University of Virginia, worries about the long-term implications of separating reproduction from human relationships. "Imagine a world with no need for marriage," he asks. Protestant ethicist Allen Verhey of Hope College in Holland, Mich., warns that cloning would program parents to "think of their children as products." And Buddhist scholar Donald Lopez foresees real problems for the theory of karma. Would the clone inherit the karma of the original person? And, he wonders, "what did the sheep do in a previous life that resulting in its being cloned in this one?"

But to judge by what American society currently permits, the nation is already far along the road toward tacit acceptance of cloning. "In our society there are two values which will allow anyone to do whatever she wants in human reproduction," observes ethicist Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. "One is the nearly absolute right to reproduce-or not--as you see fit. The other is that just about anything goes in the pursuit of improved health." Perhaps the message of Dolly is that society should reconsider its casual ethical slide toward assuming mastery over human life. Do we really want to play God?