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13 January 2003updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Welcome, whoever you are

Fay Weldon, who once wrote a novel about a cloned woman, argues that we will eventually accept clone

By Fay Weldon

Welcome to the world, little cloned baby from the Raelian sect – should you exist, which I rather doubt. I don’t care about your parentage, whether you were conceived by the natural coupling of man and woman, in a test tube by sperm and egg, or were the product of a virgin birth by cell nucleus delivered into an emptied egg; welcome all the same. You’re a person: you grew in a womb, you have a soul, you deserve love. The universal shock horror with which your (alleged) arrival is met seems to me on a par with the universal shock horror with which the notion of pain relief in childbirth was greeted in Victorian times. Children were meant to be brought forth in pain and anguish – the Bible said so. If they weren’t, a terrible doom would descend upon the child, the mother and mankind. Except it didn’t.

But I would say that, wouldn’t I? Seventeen years ago I wrote a novel called The Cloning of Joanna May, in which a woman found herself cloned by a mad scientist, a captain of industry who was also her husband. She got to the age of 40 and discovered to her horror that she had four clones of herself, now in their twenties. I got to know and love the clones, as did she. Lovely girls, without her hang-ups – but then they didn’t have to put up with her husband. They were daughters, versions of herself, sisters or whatever. Friends.

And how different from one another the clones turned out to be. They had developed in different wombs, after all, and had very different social backgrounds. They turned out to be less alike, in fact, than identical twins, who at least share a womb. The novel was in essence a fictional dissertation on the nature-nurture debate, and I got it about right – and I was thrilled when my hero Steven Pinker, the biologist, whom I met in a TV studio the other day, said as much. Not just in accord with the latest research on twins, 17 years on, but the science of cloning – down to the electrical charge that sets the process of cell division going.

So, OK, I was a prophet. But at the time, the parts of the novel that were fact – the Egyptologist bent on cloning a mummy (I met such a person in Uppsala in Sweden, doing just that – he had been working with a clinic in Leipzig, and that was in the mid-Eighties) – were assumed to be science fiction; what was pure invention was assumed to be true. So much for research, I thought. Why bother? Truth is stranger than fiction. And if the writer can think of it, someone somewhere is bound to be doing it, the world is so large and strange. My Egyptologist told me his clinic had recently stop-ped the experimentation because of East German government restraints, and the fear they’d only get 90 per cent of a perfect person as a result – but he put his finger to his nose while he said it and I knew he was lying.

Scientists have been working on cloning for a long time, and of course they feel obliged to deny it, so great is the public fear of their playing God, and their suspicion they will be stopped if anyone finds out. Even those who least believe in God (or feminise him and call her Nature) suddenly begin to cite him as evidence as to why human reproduction should happen in beds or down alleys and be left to chance; why mankind should follow its species nature and not control its own future.

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Why would anyone want to clone? Because, like the Moon, it’s there? (Nothing would do until we’d walked upon the Moon and, in the end, what difference did it make? Except wasn’t it exciting!) Because humans were born with an inquisitive gene? (We could breed it out but would we want to?) Feminists would wryly observe that it is mostly men working in the genetic field, and the motive is obvious – they want to deprive women of the one thing they can do which men can’t – that is to say, produce babies. Now men can do it, too. In the lab. Far less messy.

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I have no doubt but that in this country scientists play it by the book: for the most part they are publicly funded and have to do as they’re told, and would want to. We have our ethical committees and they err on the side of caution, and though scientific advance tends to leap ahead so fast that the committees can hardly keep up, at least the public is better informed than ever it used to be. All here would agree that the processes of cloning are not far enough advanced at the moment even to think of testing them out on humans. A cloned baby needs to be a perfect baby – though heaven knows nature doesn’t manage anything like a 100 per cent success rate.

But who is to say what is happening in North Korea, in China? Or in places where funding comes from private sources? Knowledge is international now that we have the internet. Information darts from country to country. So did little packages of frozen sperm from our fertility clinics. When parents wanted to choose the gender of the child, scientists could go in for “sperm sorting” into male and female sperm, which was banned in this country for a time – but it was legal in Mexico, so off it went. Which in itself was not illegal.

Governments and religions have always interfered with our procreative habits. Contraception was universally illegal when there was a need for a plentiful supply of cannon fodder to fight wars: the Church fell in line, saying it was sinful to interfere with the supply of souls flying to God. As weapons became more sophisticated the need for cannon fodder abated and contraception became desirable. What was once abhorrent is now given away in schools. Abortion is still a moot point – governments bent on social engineering were reluctant to allow it because, as the prerogative of the educated middle classes it lost them their best citizens. The Church followed suit, crying about the sanctity of life. Now abortion is for everyone and free on the NHS. Message: every child a wanted child. Social engineering’s in.

And cloning? Every child a chosen child? It’s bound to come. Governments are going to want their best citizens replicated, and so will individuals. No one really wants to leave anything to chance any more. Why risk an unlovable baby when a loveable one is to hand? Why have an angry, argumentative, plain population when you could have a nice, kind, peace-loving assembly of attractive, constructive citizens? And governments can leave it to parents to make their individual decisions: they won’t even have to impose choices from on high. So watch out for a relaxation of the rules and regulations on cloning. It’s coming. It may take 50 years or so, but watch this space.

But I don’t think it’s happened yet. I don’t believe in this cloned baby here and now. I think a religious sect which is so nutty that it believes we are descended from aliens will believe anything. I suspect that Brigitte Boisselier of the Clonaid cult (an offshoot of the Raelians) may well sincerely believe a baby has been cloned. But she is being duped, too.

Heaven knows what happened in a cloud of hallucinogenic fumes nine months ago to her and the three couples she declares are about to have cloned babies any moment. Poor things, they’d lost the babies they’d had in the ordinary way and wanted to repeat them.

Anyway, here you are: one new baby, achieved by whatever means. I am sure you would rather have been born than not be born at all. It’s a rare child who wishes itself out of existence. And what are these “unimaginably severe emotional pressures” pundits say you’re bound to have? They said the same about the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, and she’s just fine.

What’s the problem, even if you were cloned? That you repeat the same set of chromosomes that someone else had, undiluted by some unknown paternal factor? (You’ll still be getting a soupcon of mitochondria from someone else: you’ll never be a perfect copy.) Is it so much worse not to have a father at all than not to know who he is (except he’s from a sperm bank or one of the football team at the party your mother got drunk at), which is the fate of millions?

Worse than if he walked out on you once he knew you? Come off it. Sure, it’s not ideal, but what is? Take no notice. Welcome.