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Cloning in Contemporary Drama

Public reaction to human cloning failures could hinder research in embryonic stem cells for the repair of organs and tissues. Research is being conducted into programming these cells to turn into specific tissues types, which could (for example) be used to regenerate nerve cells and those in the heart muscle, benefiting patients with Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and heart disease. The potential benefit of this therapeutic cell cloning will be enormous, and this research should not be associated with the human cloning activists.

from Don't Clone Humans! Rudolf Jaenisch and Ian Wilmut Science Vol. 291, No. 5513, March 30, 2001.

From the very beginning, it's been clear that the technology of genetic manipulation has been advancing so fast that public debate has always been ten or twelve steps behind the reality. The establishment position over the last 20 to 30 years has gone something like this:

Meanwhile science has been making real progress while crackpots like the Raelian sect have been looking for their chance to claim validation for their fantasies.

At the heart of this story must lie the fact that there are two aspects of cloning. There's the therapeutic cloning of cells for research in oncology and the treatment of genetically based diseases, and there's the sensationalist matter of human cloning.

Human cloning isn't impossible, by any means. It's simply a matter of how many embryos, foetuses, newborns and infants you're prepared to sacrifice in order to get one viable child who'll die of a degenerative lung disease at the age of twelve. Those 'human cloning activists' may think they're the ones with the vision, but their problem is that they don't have vision enough.

A raft of Nobel laureates, including director of Imperial Cancer Research Sir Paul Nurse, have signed their names to a document which supports therapeutic cloning while firmly opposing human cloning. They see the latter as a perverse misapplication of medical technique, an attention-getting blind alley with appalling consequences and no thought-out aims. The nightmare scenario is that one tragic medical stunt could lead to the suppression of an entire technology.

How can one make a responsible piece of popular fiction when the sensational element so unbalances the issue? Let's face it, when you're growing a human clone you have ready-made drama. But when you're growing a bench embryo and all your drama takes place under the microscope, we're not really talking about a Saturday night movie. So my concern here is to draw a story out of the two related branches of the science, hold our audience with the sensational, while using the realistic and responsible science to provide the means by which they process it.

Here's how I'm thinking we could do that.

We start off with our discovery in the woods. A large number of babies' graves have been found, between 30 and 50 of them. The site resembles less a crime scene, more an archaeological dig amongst the trees. The various shallow graves have all been roped off and numbered, each one being worked on separately. Teams are moving from one to another, photographing and recording as, inch by inch, they carefully uncover each burial. Meanwhile, other teams of investigators are going over the rest of the woods with thermal imaging cameras, looking for further sites.

It's a slow process. Early investigations show that many of the babies are neo-natal, but they weren't stillbirths. The bodies have been in the ground for varying lengths of time, from one to ten years. At an average of three a year, that means there's been no mass disappearance to arouse suspicion. But the other thing that's emerged is that every single one of the children, though variously malformed and defective in different ways, has the same DNA. Some could never have survived anyway; one has what look like vestigial wings. All have been buried with reverence and a similar na´ve, home-made sense of ritual.

Right after the DNA testing is done and the mysterious questions have been raised, the investigating policeman is confronted by one of the mightiest and most successful high-flying scientific research directors in the country. He's likeable and self-deprecating but he's also a man of impeccable moral credentials and firm scientific purpose, a champion of the scientific battle against disease, and no friend of the giant corporations or those main-chance scientists whose sights are set purely on money and prestige.

What I'm saying is, genuine science is the Good Guy here.

Our man was at some conference, part of the tireless public-awareness work that he does on top of his research. He's broken all his appointments and come straight here. He's not here to bluster or just pay a flying visit, but to roll his sleeves up and join the investigation.

The investigating policeman, who's already feeling way out of his depth, at first tries to keep the guy at arms length. But he quickly realises, after getting egg on his face in some major way, that he's going to have to treat the scientist as an equal partner.

Our scientist then takes the copper into the labs and shows him what the real work involves. I see it as being a parallel to that scene in THE THIRD MAN where Joseph Cotten is taken into the children's ward and shown the consequences of the trade in adulterated penicillin. We need to have brought home to us how attempts at human cloning both pervert and emperil this lifesaving research.

Together as an unorthodox team, they start unravelling the mystery.

First they find out how the bodies came to be there. It was a janitor who was supposed to cremate them, destroying all evidence, but who only pretended to have done so… instead he gave them the nearest thing he could manage to a decent burial. He's bursting with guilt, he's ready to talk, but there's a limit to what he can give them.

He leads them to a small laboratory in the place where he works. It's a lab that's only used for one week in every year. But from this they can reconstruct the next piece of the puzzle.

The children were unofficial surrogate births. Their mothers were teenagers paid to bear them, evading antenatal care and appearing on no records. The so-called parents would collect the babies, and the surrogate would get her money and be assured that the child would have a good life. She'd know the people only as Mr and Mrs X, and would know no more than that, ostensibly so she wouldn't ever be tempted to track the kid down.

Thirty surrogate births, thirty visits from the same Mr and Mrs X posing as would-be parents.

Each time they supposedly take the child away to register the birth as their own, but they don't. They deliver the kid for testing. The kid, when found imperfect, is given a lethal injection, although perhaps it has to be said that most are so defective that they don't thrive or survive anyway.

Our investigators track down one of these surrogate mothers, maybe one from ten years back, who's moved on quite a way since. She's now a housewife who really doesn't want her family to know what she did all those years ago. She was a vulnerable teenager doing it for money. She'd had one illegitimate child out for adoption, and at the time it was no big deal to do it again. She feels differently now.

All of this with the janitor and the surrogate mother is mainly police legwork, with the copper taking the lead and our scientist tagging along and asking pertinent and unexpected questions. But at this point something emerges from the laboratory work that sets the scientist on a separate trail.

I don't know what this is. It needs to come out of the story research. But it may be like a signature that he recognises, an habitual scientific failing that was characteristic of an individual whom he perhaps worked alongside, or more likely who passed through the lower ranks of his team. Perhaps this individual was one of those disappointing scientists who sees science as a mountain to climb with money and fame at the top.

Perhaps here an Italian connection begins to emerge, and we get on the trail of this guy who's taken the base technology, taken his little learning, and made a very dangerous thing out of it.

(Historically, Italy has been the most frequent source of spurious claims and controversial applications in genetics and fertility. It'll bend the budget, but think of the scenery).

And at this point, just as it looks as if everything is becoming simplified and clear and that we've got the ending in our sights, we throw in a twist. The latest postmortem indicates that one of the most recent victims had no apparent genetic or physical defects whatsoever, but was still culled. And this casts a whole new light on our final act. It becomes clear that this is not an ongoing experiment with the final aim of producing a perfect human replica. The programme is actually seeking to reproduce one of the defective beings, with its defects not only intact but, if one can use the term, perfected.

The exact nature and purpose of this ruinous and doomed-to-failure cloning program? I'm reluctant to be pinned down on it just yet. I've got half a dozen obvious thoughts - mad sects, vain millionaires - but a feeling that there's a much better one somewhere further down the line.

Our denouement maybe involves a sting to which our scientist-hero is central, appealing to the bad scientist's vanity, and actually luring him back to England with the co-operation of the Italian police. The big problem being that this guy is living there under another identity and needs to be drawn out and caught in the act, as it were.

Meanwhile our copper is tracking down the latest batch of surrogate mothers and trying to catch up with Mr and Mrs X, who are here to collect. They abandoned the lab we already know about a couple of years before, so that knowledge is of no immediate use. They've got another, better place hidden away, a fully equipped laboratory that gets shut down every year and reactivated when the current batch of babies is born. The embryos are created in Italy and flown out for implantation over here. The question of "why here?" is only answered in the very last moment as a kind of grace note to the drama, when we reveal that there are identical facilities in about five different countries. Our thirty victims are replicated by dozens of children all over Europe, which means that there's a different batch in every country.

A last-minute attempt by the bad doctor's associates to destroy all records means that not all of those mothers carrying the current crop in each of those countries can be traced, which means that finally, somewhere, unknown to our investigators, in a country we've not even seen or visited before, a teenage girl who never got the call she was waiting for gives birth to the "perfect specimen" that our corrupt researcher was seeking.

And what were they seeking all along? Say we stick with that angel imagery from the child with the vestigial wings at the beginning. It's scientifically impossible to have a child with feathered angel wings. It which would make a fantastic image to go out on, but there's nothing in physiology or the evolutionary line that makes it even remotely plausible.

However, what we can do is do this, showing it realistically and then pulling the rug out from under the audience at the last moment, revealing that it's our copper's dream or nightmare. It's an old trick, and not the most honest one, but it works. It's the only way to do it and maintain a continuum of plausibility.

There's a strong single here but it's a self-contained story, not something that could be worked over a series. There could be series possibilities in the teaming of the scientist and the policeman for other stories, however. There is an appetite there, as CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION proves. CSI makes science sexy and doesn't play safe by only telling the audience things it already knows; you have to pay attention and you have to follow what's going on, and you come out of it feeling brighter than when you went in.