In the eleven years since my youngest children were born, twin daughters, thanks to IVF, who joined a similarly IVF-enabled sister, we've scarcely discussed their scientific beginnings. They've heard me mention the way in which we turned to medicine when I couldn't get pregnant on my own, know the vague outlines of what IVF entails and that we have seven frozen embryos leftover from the cycles that resulted in their births. We joked once about how they could use those embryos and end up being a mom and a sister all at once, which gave two out of three of them nightmares and caused an end to further investigation, existential or otherwise. That is, until yesterday.
While driving Anna from gymnastics to piano, Lily to the orthodontist and Sophia to track, I overheard the words "cloning" and "embryonic stem cells" on NPR. I shushed the girls, turned up the radio and advised them to listen.
"I'm really into this stuff," I explained. "Plus, I know how much you guys like science and these stories are usually mind-blowing."
The reporter explained that scientists at Oregon Health & Scienceorego University succeeded in using cloning to create human embryonic stem cells by taking skin cells from a baby and fusing them with donated human eggs which resulted in embryos that were genetically identical to the baby.
"Ew," Lily said. "That's gross."
I shushed her again and cranked up the volume. The reporter explained that the researchers' purported goal is therapeutic cloning, or making embryonic stem cells that are identical to a particular patient in order to grow replacement tissue in case of a host of diseases. But he also mentioned the similarity between this procedure and the one which resulted in Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned animal, and the many cloned animals that have followed.
"That's scary," Anna said, when the report ended and news turned to lane closures on the Edens Expressway.
"I agree, it is sort of scary. But it's also really cool, right? How scientists are working towards figuring out cures for terrible diseases? And how this will help them understand how cells behave when they have certain deformities or are exposed to different conditions? I mean, you guys are so lucky that we have frozen embryos leftover that you might be able to use if, God forbid, you get a disease or need a new part."
"I still think they shouldn't do it," she said. "I mean, because of the fact that they could clone a baby now. I'd hate to be born without a family. That would just be so sad."
I explained how unlikely that was, how just because something works in perfect lab conditions doesn't mean it'll work in as messy an environment as the human body. I also reminded her that the lead researcher, Professor Mitalipov, said himself that they had no intention of implanting the human embryos they created. "But Anna, we can't not take risks in the name of scientific inquiry and medical advancement out of some vague concern over what if. To advance knowledge and improve human lives, we create certain conditions in order to study them. But that's why morals and ethics and laws and gut instinct are so important. All of those things guide the behavior of the scientists. I mean, it sounded like this Mitalipov guy really isn't interested in cloning a person. At least that's what he made a point of saying."
"Why wouldn't he want to?" Sophia asked. "He'd not only be the first to achieve something pretty scientifically cool, but he'd also be, like, famous forever."
"Aren't me and my sisters clones?" Lily asked. "Isn't that they way we were born?" I reminded her that IVF is sort of like how regular babies are created, only outside the body. I explained that it is still my egg, Dada's sperm ("disgusting," "ew," "so gross," the girls said) and that once doctors combined them in a dish in a lab, they went back into my uterus ("yuck," "ick") and that, from there, they developed the same way any other person develops. Which led, again, to me emphasizing the difference between perfectly controlled lab conditions, how manipulatable cells are while they exist in a Petrie dish, but that once introduced to something as chaotic and uncertain as a human incubator, a million things could go wrong. "So even if Sophia is right, that there is a fame-hungry, ethically-challenged maniac at Oregon Health & Science University who is dead-set on cloning the first human being, the chances it would work are probably close to nil."
"It's still scary," Anna proclaimed. "But if they clone babies who need homes and a real family, maybe we can adopt one. But only if it's a girl. Since we already have all of the clothes and all. Guys, promise not to use Mom and Dada's frozen embryos when you get older, okay? That'd just be wrong."
Correction: A previous version of this post stated the stem cells were cloned at Oregon State University. The cloning happened at Oregon Health & Science University.