Well, they've cloned sheep and they've cloned monkeys. Now everyone is asking whether humans will be next. It's the moral dilemma of the year. Of course, the mere fact that this is the question on people's minds should tell us something. Ever notice that nothing becomes an ethical problem until it affects (or potentially affects) humans? Make all the identical tadpoles you want and no one will notice, but threaten to grow little copies of Elvis and that's big news.
Naturally, we vegetarians look at the broader picture. For us the ethical issues associated with biotechnology started a little sooner. For example, we knew genetic engineers were up to no good way back when they planted that "anti-freeze" flounder gene into the "flavr savr" tomato. We tried to tell everyone who would listen that only bad things can happen when we play God and experiment on our fellow creatures. We railed against the whole idea that animals are something that can be created, patented and profited from. But did anyone listen? Of course not!
It's only now—now that it's actually become possible to clone a young Sandra Dee and film a remake of that movie classic Gidget Goes to Poland—that people are starting to take notice. But, of course, it's too late. The juggernaut of genetic engineering is at full speed, and we're standing on the brink of Brave New World. (Pass me some soma please, and while you're at it, you may as well clone me someone to clean out my garage.)
Of course there's the possibility that we're getting this all wrong. Maybe we vegetarians have been focused on the "doom and gloom" aspects of genetic engineering for too long. Maybe we should go with the flow for once in our lives and look on the brighter side of things.
We won't exactly need our sunglasses, but there is some potential light on the horizon. For example, if people are going to experiment on animals anyway, would it be so bad use clones, so that fewer animals could be used to make a statistically valid sample? If people are going to raise animals for food anyway, wouldn't it be better to genetically engineer them to resist, without antibiotics, the diseases they're likely to encounter on the "factory" farm? And what's so terrible about corn genetically engineered to be pest resistant, so we can do away with pesticides?
Of course anyone concerned with animal rights or human health could counter by saying that these "good" things only help to solve problems that humans created in the first place. We don't need animal testing at all. The "vegetarian" model of organic farming is better still. And the biggest medical advances could come very simply if people would only eat healthy food.
How about genetically engineered animals being raised to supply "body parts" for transplantation into humans, you ask? How about people simply signing organ donor cards when they get their drivers' licenses renewed instead.
A recent CNN/Time poll found that 66% of Americans think it is morally wrong to clone animals, and 56% said they would not eat meat from cloned animals. How long should we expect those numbers to last? If hamburger from cloned animals is on our friendly grocer's shelf for 30 cents a pound cheaper than the other stuff, what are people going to choose? Are morals worth 30 cents a pound?
Like it or not, and for better or worse, genetic engineering will play a huge part in our future lives. And when cloning, or any other kind of bio-manipulation of plants and animals, and even humans, becomes commonplace, it will be a moral issue no longer.
How do I know this? From personal experience. I don't shun gorgeous blondes merely because thousands of years of natural selection have accentuated the traits in all of us (…well, not me personally) that people find attractive. I like dogs too, even though greed-driven "genetic engineers" of times long past created them from wolves. And this spring I'll choose seeds for my organic garden from the only kinds available—genetic "hybrids" that are worlds different from their ancestors in the wild. When I see the big, perfect plants they produce I'll think about the "ethical" issues George Washington Carver must have faced, but I won't have any moral misgivings about those things now.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to fear in the future. A hundred years from now cloned sheep will be no big deal compared to the bio-ethics problems facing humankind. Who knows what people will be doing by then, and who knows what they may be "manufacturing" to put on their dinner tables. It's a scary thought.
One thing I know they won't be eating at the end of the next century is the "flavr savr" tomato. After all the fanfare, it will be remembered as the biggest bio-flop of the long-gone 1990's, and will be seen only on display in the Smithsonian Institute. There it will sit—on the shelf between the Tickle Me Elmo doll and the Rubic's cube—juicy and ripe forever.