This is the first entry in our newest weblog, Life Matters, a weekly roundup of news and commentary on issues of life: creating it, ending it, enhancing it, and treating it properly. We're pleased to announce that our blogger will be Nigel M. de S. Cameron, whose work in life ethics areas should be familiar to many readers of Christianity Today, where he has long served as a contributing editor.

Cameron is also research professor of bioethics and president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future at Chicago-Kent College of Law in the Illinois Institute of Technology. He is director of the Council on Biotechnology Policy, senior fellow at the Wilberforce Forum and the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, and former provost of Trinity International University. He was the founding editor of Ethics & Medicine, and is author of The New Medicine: Life and Death After Hippocrates.

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In 1997, the announcement that Dolly the sheep had been cloned was an earthquake. There's not much doubt that the history books will see it as the opening shot of the "biotech century"—and maybe the first big step down the road to the Brave New World. But we soon got used to her unsmiling face on our newsmagazines, and as scientists have been busy cloning mice and cattle and cats, we have become used to it.

So now the Koreans have cloned a dog. The first cloned dog is an Afghan hound, with the weird name Snuppy (something about Seoul National University, it seems). But at least we have been spared a repeat of the locker-room humor that gave us Dolly's name (for those who missed the "joke," Dolly is named for Dolly Parton, with special reference to the breast tissue of Dolly's archetype from which the skin cell was taken).

As The Washington Post notes, cloning a dog is very hard. Some species are much easier than others, and researchers have tried and failed in the past to get a canine equivalent of Copy Cat, the copied cat. One factor working in favor of the Korean efforts would seem to be the indefatigable energies of Dr. Hwang, the same Dr. Hwang who earlier this year led the world in cloning human embryos from which stem-cell lines could be culled. According to the Post report, more than 1,400 cloned embryos were created, of which just over 1,000 were deemed good enough to implant in a canine womb. Culling the eggs involved multiple operations on more than 100 dogs (dogs apparently have a strange reproductive system that is much harder to manage than those of most species—including our own). The scientists used 123 surrogate mothers. Two bitches carried puppies to term; one of which one died shortly after birth. Snuppy was the sole survivor.

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What do we make this? First, it shows that energy, skill, and industrial-style execution will keep taking forward this technology. Those who said that humans "couldn't be" cloned all the way to term are simply going to be proved wrong. The cloning technology is unstoppable—unless, of course, we stop it. Second, it shows how the psychological barriers to human cloning will begin to erode. As I argued last week on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, Snuppy is a stepping stone to cloning our kids. Dogs are quasi family members; they are extraordinary animals that people have taken into their homes for thousands of years. That's why there will be such a push to use this technology, so that the very wealthy can clone their dogs—in a bizarre attempt to bring their beloved pooches back from the grave. Because a clone is basically an identical twin, of course, this is an illusion. But it is a powerful illusion, and if in 20 years or 50 years we are cloning kids, Snuppy will be seen as a vital stepping stone in overcoming our intuitive distaste for clonal babies.

Which brings us back to the drum that some of us have been banging, in season and out of season, for the past eight years. Cloning humans must be banned; we must draw a clear, bright line and ensure that this technology (somatic cell nuclear transfer) is not used on members of our species—whether for baby-making purposes, or to mass produce embryos for research. And what few Americans know (including, I suspect, few of those who inhabit Capitol Hill) is that, round the world, the cloning debate is not seen as a pro-life/pro-choice rerun, but as something that brings together Left, Right, and Center.

Did you know that Canada—the Canada that has just signed off on gay marriage—has actually made cloning (including so-called therapeutic cloning) a felony? Clone embryos in Ottawa and you won't get a Nobel prize; you could do five years' jail time. The Assisted Human Reproduction Act makes interesting reading.

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Dr. Frist's flip-flop

Though most Christians have failed to grasp the fact, it's hardly a surprise that biotech issues have started to dominate our culture—and especially our politics. Who would have guessed that the first televised address of an incoming American President would be on stem-cell research? That he would threaten his first veto to head off a challenge to his policy? And that, four years later, Senate Majority Leader and alleged presidential hopeful Bill Frist would decide to break with it? The New York Times applauded his decision but said he should go further and back "therapeutic cloning." Meanwhile, Bill Saletan of Slate, who has one of the sharpest journalistic minds out there, concluded that he is a "closet pro-choicer."

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Nano risks
Science reports on an unusual event: A regulatory agency asking for help from those it regulates on the technology that has stupendous importance for the human future:

Nanomaterials put regulators in an unfamiliar bind. With traditional chemical toxins, any two molecules with the same chemical formula look and behave alike. Two nano-particles made of the same elements but of different sizes, however, may have drastically different chemical properties. Even particles of the same size and elemental composition can have very different properties. … That diversity makes it a daunting task to sort out just which particles are hazardous to people and the environment and to control their production and release.

The Environmental Protection Agency's focus is, of course, environmental risk. But there are potentially more sinister threats from nano in the wrong hands, as Chris Hook has argued in Christianity Today. If the safety issues are solved, we may still end up with a technology that destroys us—by "enhancing us." David Rejeski called the EPA meeting "the blind man feeling the elephant." But at least it's feeling the elephant—on nanotech threats, others seem content to ignore the one in their living rooms.

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Until next time, here are a few of the key life ethics sites monitoring the news:

  • The Center for Bioethics and Culture
  • The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity
  • The Council for Biotechnology Policy

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
Previous Life Matters Columns: