Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Judith F. Daar

Professor of Law, Whittier Law School
Clinical Professor of Medicine, UCI College of Medicine


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Portrayals of human cloning as a method of organ farming, or worse, sanctioned killing via the systematic removal of body parts, is dangerously inflammatory and scientifically inaccurate. As to the former, CC is littered with language convicting cloning of dooming the human species, describing a post-cloning world as one devoid of all humanity.

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The Reel Story of Human Cloning: Drama Gone Wild

by Judith F. Daar

The familiar adage that science outpaces law at every turn yields a treasure trove of source material for creators of dramatic fiction. This past decade alone saw a veritable gush of scientific advances that are stand-alone plot lines of intrigue, mystery and drama. Witness the burgeoning yet politically charged debate over human stem cell research, the public/private alliance that unraveled the identity of the human genome, and of course, there was Dolly, everybody's favorite cloned sheep.

With these life science advances as its backdrop, CBS recently premiered Century City, a new mid-season drama that drops viewers in a Los Angeles law firm, circa 2030. To reify the futuristic genre of the show, the writers offer two storylines pulled from the imagined headlines two decades hence. The first episode's main plot weaves the tale of a 7-year old boy born with a defective liver in need of a transplant whose father whisks him off to Singapore to be cloned, thus creating an identical organ for harvest. The sub-plot ponders the merits of age-defying genetic enhancements, taken up with seemingly remarkable success by members of a 1980s boy band. Though placed a generation in the future, these dramatic enactments reflect a contemporary sensibility about genetic and reproductive technologies that is dangerously misinformed.

By all accounts, Century City will not find its way back to the fall line-up, opening a dismal 45th in the ratings following a collective thumbs down by reviewers. "Gratingly preachy" offered Robert Bianco of USA Today; "sterile and formulaic" hurled Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe; "humdrum casting and a dead-end concept" proclaimed Tom Shales of the Washington Post, and those were the good reviews. Yet despite this deserved panning of the show as an entertainment vehicle, Century City offers an opportunity to spend a moment reflecting on the relationship between popular culture and science, particularly science that literally operates at the core of human existence.

A peek at the CC plot reveals much about the current perception that cloning technology will be used for the diabolical manufacture of human beings rather than as a reproductive measure of last resort for incurable infertility. At the outset, we are introduced to Axel Sisto, the ailing boy whose father has been arrested by the Customs Service for entering the country with a vial containing a cloned human embryo. Turns out, sometime in the past 25 years Congress outlawed cloning in the U.S., including the importation of cloned cells. Axel's father, Miller, travels with his son to Singapore where cloning is legal. There, according to the young lawyer briefing the firm in L.A. Law fashion, doctors removed a cell from the boy's arm, extracted its DNA and created a viable embryo which was destined for a surrogate mother when it was intercepted by the feds. The father's plan, but of course, is to orchestrate the cloned child's birth so that a surgeon can remove half of his liver for transplant into his dying twin brother.

Undaunted by this nefarious scheme, the firm agrees to handle the case on a pro bono basis. Its mission B to win back the detained embryo from the government. Enter the Assistant United States Attorney, oozing unction at every pore, who argues in a virtual courtroom pretrial hearing that the embryo is not property and therefore cannot be claimed for possession by the father. The judge agrees that the case should be heard by a jury which, in television terms, means stay tuned after the commercial break. But before the speedy trial ensues, the father huddles with his lawyers and pipes up with a sure-fire strategy to defeat the government's argument that the embryo should be treated as a person under the law. What if, he suggests haltingly, we "pinch off" the embryo so that only the liver and supporting circulatory system develop. No head, no heart, voila -- no person. This, I fear, is where the ethical rubber meets the fantastical road to Doomsdayville.

Portrayals of human cloning as a method of organ farming, or worse, sanctioned killing via the systematic removal of body parts, is dangerously inflammatory and scientifically inaccurate. As to the former, CC is littered with language convicting cloning of dooming the human species, describing a post-cloning world as one devoid of all humanity. This point is best captured during the predictably melodramatic courtroom scene when, in delivering his closing argument, the prosecutor snarls that the father is trying to retrieve the cloned embryo so that he can "grow it like a crop."

The only countervailing imagery to this Robin Cook vision of cloning comes in the form of a plot twist. When pressed about the origin of his son's birth, Miller confesses that Axel is himself a clone, a genetic twin of his father. Snippets of Chinatown My brother! My Son! do flare, as the family law angle parades briefly across the screen. But instead of seizing the moment to note that the child appears to have a normal, healthy relationship with the world around him, the lawyers emphasize the boy's congenital liver defect, perhaps as a subtle reminder (lest we ignored the crashing hammer on our heads) that cloning equals harm.

As to the technical possibilities that cloning entails, again the show takes dramatic liberties that infringe on reality's comfort zone. To begin, if the father did manage to orchestrate the clone's birth, he certainly could not yank out the child's vital organs to save his other son. That would be old-fashioned homicide and would have to be referred to CBS's other new drama, The D.A. Moreover, the idea that an embryo could be "pinched off" or partially grown defies the basic principles of human embryology. Exactly when would this embryo be decapitated, and why would it survive without a central nervous system? And finally, I admit to nitpicking when I wonder why a father would clone a child born with a defective liver, in order to offer the ailing boy the cloned liver. Hello, the cloned liver would bear the same defect as that of cell donor. But these finer points could distract from the furious plucking of heartstrings that are the viewer's constant companion.

CC is not alone in taking up the cloning mantle in dramatic fashion. The 1978 film version of Ira Levin's chilling novel, The Boys From Brazil, features Nazi escapees who succeed in cloning 94 newborn versions of the twentieth century's most reviled individual. The horde of Hitlers are placed in adoptive homes that roughly resemble the Fuhrer's own family situation. And then as each boy nears age fourteen, his father dies, as did Hitler's own father at that time, thus recreating the hospitable environment that will allow each mini-Hitler to become evil incarnate. A less diabolical but equally absurd cloning rendition is presented in Multiplicity, wherein overworked family man Michael Keaton manages to clone himself several times over so that he can attain the American dream of all work, all play, all the time. The "wacky" antics that ensue leave wife Andie MacDowell dazed and confused, while the audience is never confused about the Hollywood message to "just be yourself."

Fictionalized accounts of scientific advances are often bereft of even a modicum of scientific truth. A cloned Hitler, were that ever a possibility, could not experience the same familial and historical influences that shaped the man himself short of the truly extraordinary invention of a time machine. Cloned individuals may bear the same genetic code as another person, but they will grow from embryo to fetus in the womb just like everybody else, and they will experience the world in their own unique way, just like everybody else. Clones are not born as adults with an implanted frame of reference, but rather begin life as a single cell whose DNA comes from one, instead of two, parents.

In the non-reel world, human reproductive cloning remains a twinkle in the scientist's eye. Short of bare claims by a group pledging fidelity to a leader claiming contact with space aliens, it is safe to say the world's first human clone has yet to be born. But when that child does emerge from the womb, he or she will join a world at war with itself over the ethics of that baby's conception. To date, seven U.S. states have banned reproductive cloning, with virtually every other state considering similar measures. Congress has yet to enact a ban, as the issue is bound up with the more palatable technique of therapeutic cloning, aka stem cell research. Worldwide, cloning to produce children is illegal in twenty nations, and the United Nations is poised to include an international convention on reproductive human cloning on the General Assembly's agenda for the fall of 2004. Gallup polls consistently reveal that almost 90% of those questioned believe reproductive cloning is wrong. But the follow-up question, Why?, is never posed.

I suspect that a small but significant part of the explanation rests in the popular culture portrayals of cloning as science gone awry. True enough, stories of healthy, happy families are an anachronism unbecoming the crucial 18-49 demographic. But is it too much to ask that the truth about what cloning is and what it is not play a supporting role in the unfolding drama that pits mad science against a yielding and powerless human species? If it turns out that Century City is as doomed as the science of cloning, it has only itself to blame.

Posted: April 2, 2004

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