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
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
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