It all started with the announcement of the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first clone of an adult mammal, in February 1997. That breakthrough experiment has led to the cloning of cows and mice, creating the perception that humans might eventually also be cloned. The big challenge, of course, is drawing the line between the usefulness and the risks of human cloning. Japan’s new legislation concerning cloning technology for humans is an attempt to address this pivotal question.

The law, enacted in the last Diet session and scheduled to take effect next June, prohibits the cloning of humans on the grounds that it “could have serious effects on the upholding of human dignity, the securing of the safety of human life and the human body, and the maintenance of social order.” The prohibition itself seems reasonable, at least for the time being. Cloning genetically identical humans means breeding human copies. Treating persons as a means or as mere tools is clearly an affront to individual dignity.

Those who violate the law are subject to prison terms of not more than 10 years or fines not exceeding 10 million yen. These penalties, which are much more severe than originally proposed, are similar to those for other grossly antisocial acts such as putting poison in foods on sale and producing sarin gas for criminal purposes. The provisions against human cloning are tougher than those in other countries.

Specific research into human cloning is also prohibited, and offenders are subject to punishment. In principle, academic activity should not be restricted by law, as freedom of research is critical to scientific development. That is why genetic-modification technology, for instance, is restrained not by law but by the voluntary efforts of individual researchers or by the ethics committees of related organizations. Statutory curbs on research, if necessary, must be kept within reasonable bounds.

It is also true that reproductive biology is bound to create serious problems as it reaches into human territory. The danger is that without regulatory controls research could get out of hand. That danger is growing in the field of human cloning. So the anticloning law is to be supported by a set of guidelines that would restrict research in the cloning of human cells.

A key type of cell — “stem cells” from human embryos — has been attracting international attention since it was isolated and grown in a U.S. lab in 1998. Embryonic stem cells — so called because they develop into various types of tissue that make up the human body — can be used, with the help of cloning technology, to create tissues and organs for transplants.

It is notable that the new legislation, while banning human cloning itself, leaves the door open to the future use of cloning technology for medical treatment. The guidelines now in the works are designed to permit research in this field.

The law was drafted on the basis of deliberations at the Council for Science and Technology, an advisory panel to the prime minister, which weighed the merits and demerits of cloning and thrashed out ethical problems. Although the council debate has failed to inspire a national debate, it has helped to ease, if not erase, public anxiety about this highly sensitive issue.

Many problems remain, however. There is as yet no comprehensive legislation governing in vitro fertilization and the handling of fertilized eggs, for example. The planned guidelines on cloning research should make up shortcomings in the current legislative system, such as the protection of fertilized eggs, the beginning of human life.

Human eggs and sperm can be easily manipulated in a test tube. By the same token, creating a human clone might prove rather easy if an experiment were conducted. Unlike big science, which requires enormous amounts of money and effort, cloning would be a relatively simple project that could be carried out even by a single skilled scientist with the aid of microscopes and other laboratory apparatus.

Indeed, the cloning of humans is already an urgent problem. It is reported that a new religious group based in Switzerland has embarked on a cloning program in the United States — which has no legislation banning human cloning — and that various women, including Japanese, have volunteered to become surrogate mothers by receiving transplants of cloned embryos. The first human clone could be created in the U.S. as early as next year. If that happens, more clones could follow in America and elsewhere, making it imperative to conclude an international treaty concerning cloning.

There are both bright and dark sides to the recent dramatic advances in biotechnology. The cardinal rule is not to conduct any research that would pose threats to society. For that, it is essential to disclose research results and achievements.

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