Rafting on the Nenana River last week, my sixteen-year-old twins and I saw a grizzly bear chase a moose and her calf out of the woods. The mother and calf took refuge midstream near us (not cool to be that close to a moose) before clamoring up the other bank and escaping, while the bear paced on the other side.
If cornered, a moose cow will defend its calf against a bear. It sounds like poor odds, but a moose weighing a thousand pounds plus can bring its hooves down on a bear with tremendous force.
Seeing the grizzly bear pace on the opposite bank, I thought about what I would do if necessary to defend my sons from the moose or bear. Certainly I would have tried to hold off with the paddles while the twins swam to the other shore. That was a no-brainer.
But it reminded me of a more difficult question: How far would you go to give a loved or dear one back their life?
We know what our Jewish tradition tells us about grieving and honoring their memory. All losses are egregious, but faced with a particularly difficult loss, if you had the chance to bring him or her back, would you?
These were the questions my wife and I were forced to contend with when we unexpectedly lost our seven-year-old son, David, in 2004. At that time I spoke with a scientist who claimed he had taken human cloning to a multi-cell stage.
I wracked my brain over the question at the time: Should we take the risk to try to bring back our son? We assessed the odds. How credible was the scientist. Would he do it? If he did what were the chances it would work?
Tissue would have to have been preserved under very strict conditions. There were no published or credible anecdotal precedents for successfully—or unsuccessfully—cloning a human. Mammalian cloning had been done successfully but was fraught with complications. What unexpected consequences might occur? Would there be time bombs—remember Dolly the sheep? The cells would have to be washed of all the natural substances that tell it how old it is. What if the reprogramming process was imperfect? Might the cloned David age prematurely? If the fetus grew too big it could endanger Lisa. Were there other unknown dangers to the mother?
Even if the cloning process were successful David would no longer be our first born, the leader of his brothers and sister. He would be the youngest sibling of four. Lisa and I were at a very different place in our lives when David was born. Would that change him? Would he emanate the same infectious joie de vivre? Would he have memories of his past life? In some respects a memory is an electronic circuit among brain cells. Could memory be coded by genes in some respect and passed on by cloning? There are basic experiments to support this. If a flatworm is subjected to shock each time a light comes on, it will recoil to light. If you cut that worm in half, the part that grows a new head will remember to curl up to light even without ever having been shocked. This is consistent with the notion that memory can be stored outside the brain.
There was also the ethical dilemma, especially from a Jewish perspective. A few decades ago the process of in vitro fertilization was considered sketchy and the products of it referred to as “test tube” babies. Now the process is mainstream, socially acceptable and has made a difference in countless couples’ lives under the rubric of “assisted fertilization.” Maybe human cloning to bring back a loved one follow the same path to social acceptance: when twins are made, the fertilized egg, the zygote, divides, producing a genetically identical duplicate—one could argue that the process by which clones were is not so different from the process of making an identical twin.
We can rationalize the ethics of it. The real risk is medical—and perhaps moral, too: we just don’t know whether we would be doing David a favor or not. But it’s the only shot to give him his life back.
I thought of David’s laughter, the sound of his voice, I remembered him holding his sister’s hand, pointing at the moon. I recalled he had once said we should have our offices together when he grew up so we would never have to be apart.
“Lisa, what was that scientist’s name again?”
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