The ethics debate over animal cloning

Advocates, opponents weigh in
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Not surprisingly, the Food and Drug Administration's determination that meat and dairy products from cloned animals are safe to eat has sparked no small controversy. Critics were quick to level a number of charges against the practice, including claims that animals involved in the process are harmed.

In its 678-page draft risk assessment, the FDA sought to allay concerns about the welfare of cloned animals, stating: "(Somatic cell nuclear transfer) can pose an increased frequency of health risks to animals involved in the cloning process, but these do not differ qualitatively from those observed in other (assisted reproductive technologies) or natural breeding."

In response, a coalition of consumer, environmental, and animal welfare organizations filed a petition with the FDA seeking a moratorium on foods produced from cloned animals and establishment of mandatory rules for premarket food safety and environmental review of cloned foods.

"The Humane Society of the United States supports scientific advancement, but cloning lacks any legitimate social value and decreases animal welfare," said Michael Greger, MD, HSUS director of public health and animal agriculture.

The debate over cloning illustrates how complex innovations in biotechnology often outpace society's ability to make sense of them.

According to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, U.S. consumers know little about biotechnology but are more strongly opposed to cloning animals than they are to genetically modifying plants. A December 2006 report by Pew found that 64 percent of Americans were uncomfortable with animal cloning while just 22 percent were comfortable with it.

Advocates of the process contend that animal cloning has been studied rigorously for decades and has been shown to be safe. Cloning speeds up reproduction of the healthiest and most productive livestock. Most consumers will likely never eat a cloned animal because clones are expensive; it is their progeny that will enter the food chain. Additionally, cloning could lead to creating lines of animals resistant to diseases harmful to humans, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Paul Thompson, PhD, the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food, and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, thinks the opposition to animal cloning can be explained partly by negative feelings associated with the human cloning concept in general. The public may also see cloning as an unnatural practice that treats animals more as things than creatures, he said.

"There are a number of mistakes people sometimes make in terms of the way they think through these issues and articulate them," Dr. Thompson said. "But the basic concern about this lack of respect they perceive for the animals is at least an ethically coherent set of concerns for people to have."

Dr. Thompson believes the FDA's risk assessment does adequately address the welfare concerns surrounding animal cloning.

Ethicist Bernard Rollin, PhD, said cloning food animals could have unintended consequences, such as accelerating monoculture in animal agriculture. A new or emerging pathogen could wipe out entire herds because of the lack of genetic diversity among the animals. Moreover, how does one know for sure which animal to clone?

"We say this is the superior bull, let's clone this bull and replace all our bulls with this one. Then it turns out the bull has some unknown genetic disease," explained Dr. Rollin, philosophy professor at Colorado State University.

Both Drs. Thompson and Rollin noted that cloning advocates within the scientific and business communities fail to educate the public properly about these innovations, resulting in misunderstanding and fear, which make for bad ethics.

"It's important not to just announce a wonderful discovery like cloning," Dr. Thompson said, "but to really try to let people know that you took some pains to think about these kinds of issues and that there are motivations for doing it that are nobler than just making a buck."