It’s a Sunday morning in Princeton, and New York Times reporter Gina Kolata is at a church breakfast, tirelessly addressing the issues in her new book. In response to headlines about a Chicago physicist who is determined to start a human cloning clinic, President Clinton has just announced he will ban human cloning research. Kolata is incensed.
A reporter first, she has staked out no personal positions on the ethics of cloning. But she is, perhaps even without knowing it, an evangelist for a cause — the cause of getting Mary and Joe Q. Public to think seriously about cloning, to ponder its consequences, and to take a reasoned position, not have a knee-jerk response. "The discussion of cloning so far has been ridiculously simplistic," says Kolata at the Princeton United Methodist Church breakfast. "This is too important for the public to be as unsophisticated as they
Kolata is doing a publicity tour for her new book, "Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead" (William Morrow, January 1998, $23). A resident of Princeton and a member of the Princeton Regional School Board, she graciously shows up for an 8 a.m. Sunday breakfast, yet she is also being featured on such eminent venues as Terry Gross’s Fresh Air show and the Charlie Rose television show. She will talk and sign her book at Barnes & Noble, Marketfair, on Tuesday, January 27, at 7 p.m.
Kolata provides answers to what people are thinking — here’s the amazing story, here’s what we are doing right now, and here’s what might be possible in the future. She explains how Scottish scientist Ian Wilmut took a frozen cell from the udder of a now-dead sheep and reversed its development cycle, taking it back to the one-cell state of a just-fertilized egg, and how from this he grew a baby lamb. "To biologists," Kolata writes, "it was like the breaking of the sound barrier, or, perhaps more appropriately, the splitting of the atom."
Kolata has taken us to a technological and ethical precipice before. She wrote "The Baby Doctors: Proving the Limits of Fetal Medicine" and co-authored, "Sex in America" (U.S. 1, November 9, 1994). Here she has broken ground on The Issue for this decade, maybe this century. She has written so comprehensively and clearly that her book could be the basic text on cloning for years to come.
She emphasizes that research on cloning can do more than clone a child. It could result in wonderful new drug factories. A Dolly-like cloned sheep or cow could be cloned with a gene that would produce a particular drug in the milk. Instead of paying millions of dollars for each teaspoon of the drug, the cow would produce pails of it. Or cloning could allow someone to have their own bone marrow cloned. It could allow the creation of a new organ — a heart or a kidney — with no danger of rejection.
In person, Kolata tells her stories as fluently as she writes them. "She loves knowledge. She loves learning things, and she loves to explain what she’s learned," says her editor, Toni Sciarra. "She loves to ask the questions everybody is thinking but not asking."
"Cloning may not be raising new moral questions," suggests Kolata at the breakfast. "It may be raising questions we are already disturbed by." Ethical considerations, she points out, surface at each and every turn in the discovery road — Who gets use of a dialysis machine? Who gets an artificial heart? And so on. But in 1972 the scandal over the 1932 Tuskegee study (infamous because it left poor black men untreated for syphilis even after the discovery of penicillin) was, Kolata says, an "ethical watershed."
The uproar inspired Daniel Callahan and Willard Gaylin to found an ethical think tank, the Hastings Center. Gaylin used the cloning issue to whomp up funding, and — 25 years before Dolly — his chilling New York Times Magazine article "The Frankenstein Myth Becomes a Reality — We Have the Awful Knowledge to Make Exact Copies of Human Beings" left the public aghast.
"It was this emergence of the ethics movement that generated the Greek chorus for the cloning debates," Kolata writes. The late Paul Ramsey, a Princeton University theologian, wrote in 1972 that cloning might be the "beginning of a journey down what he saw as a slippery slope," as Kolata puts it. Ramsey wanted us all to raise the ethical questions with a serious and not a "frivolous" conscience, not merely to find a rationalization for what is now possible to do, but to challenge what should not be done.
Yet scientists of the ’70s generally ignored the cloning issue because they didn’t really believe it was possible. They believed that a cell grown for one purpose could not revert to an earlier stage; that once a cell has reached its final form, it never alters; that a kidney cell remains a kidney cell for as long as the person is alive, and it never turns into a liver cell, even though its genes are the same. They could not imagine that one udder cell could develop into an embryo and then a lamb.
The other reason that Dolly surprised almost everybody: Dolly’s creator does not move in the "fashionable" scientific circles. Ivy League lab scientists who work with mice don’t pay much attention to scientists in the hinterlands who work with farm animals. And those who work with mice had been badly burnt, in 1984, by the searing, far-reaching exposure of a scientist who allegedly made false claims about his ability to clone mice. "Not only did scientific leaders turn their backs on the man who said he had cloned but they began to disdain the very pursuit of cloning itself," writes Kolata.
After that, "cloning left the high-profile world of molecular biology and retreated to the little known world of animal science," she writes, noting that eminent geneticists such as Princeton University’s Lee Silver (author of the also just-published "Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in the Brave New World," Avon, $25) don’t talk to the agricultural scientists or even come to the same meetings.
"The scientists working in barnyards and gathering eggs from ovaries that they collected at slaughterhouses were increasingly isolated from the science superstars, whose universe seemed to be the only one that mattered," Kolata writes. The farm animal scientists "were the only ones brave enough to take up the cloning problems. And they had been motivated more by the economic promise of cloning than by a thirst to understand the molecular mysteries of
Now that the issue of cloning has once more been released from Pandora’s box, Kolata emphasizes, the public needs to understand all the possibilities, not just the obvious ones. Acceptance of research on recombinant DNA had been very slow, and this delay hampered the research, says Kolata. "In the zeal to cut off cloning are we going to make it a crime to do research?"
In her talk, Kolata cites the case of a mother who desperately needed a kidney for her 15-year-old daughter and had another baby so she could donate one of the baby’s kidneys to her older sister. How different is that, ethically, from cloning a kidney, Kolata asks.
"Cloning is a metaphor and a mirror," Kolata writes. "It allows us to look at ourselves and our values and to decide what is important to us and why. It also reflects the place of science in our world. Do we see science as a threat or a promise? What would it do to us as a people to think that the rich could have replacement parts?"
But the "just suppose" possibilities fascinate her nonetheless. Even now, would-be parents can choose an egg donor and choose a sperm donor, have the fertilized egg implanted in a uterus, and have an "almost just-like-us" baby. But Kolata poses the question, "Suppose I can add a gene that is resistant to Alzheimer’s, how is that different from a vaccination against Alzheimer’s? Each of us will draw the line in different places."
"Cloning is in the future. Cloning is for the very few. Cloning is for the very rich. Most people will want to have children with their partners," Kolata promises the Methodists. She quotes Princeton Theological seminarian Nancy Duff: "Many people wonder if this is a miracle for which we can thank God, or an ominous new way to play God ourselves." Kolata gently deflects someone who tries to pin her down about what is "right" by quoting theologians who used the same chapter of Genesis to prove opposing views.
This is just the sort of discussion Kolata wrote her book to provoke. She finished it in an amazingly short time over the summer. Yet she has diligently annotated her sources with 11-pages of footnotes and a 16-page index (even Joyce Carol Oates gets mentioned). Yet she has also captured the drama of how the news broke, how Dolly’s birth took place, and how "the nation’s leading scientists squared off in virtual phalanxes of Who’s Who."
The very efficient Gina Bari Kolata talks like she writes — with candor and speed, barely stopping to take a breath. Speed is her trademark (she once had to take remedial classes because she talked so fast) and perhaps her lightning-quick reactions are what deflected her from doing science into writing about it.
Kolata grew up in Maryland, the daughter of a diamond setter and a mathematician. She majored in microbiology at the University of Maryland (Class of 1969), but in graduate school at MIT she was dissuaded from pursuing that as a career because she did not like the tedium of long days in labs. She tried studying math in graduate school but — again — realized she was better at explaining theories than at dreaming them up.
An entry-level job at Science magazine led to numerous freelance assignments and a co-authored book on high blood pressure. When the New York Times hired her as a science reporter, she and her mathematician husband and two children moved to Princeton in 1990. Dedicated to fitness, she runs and works out at Gold’s Gym. "I like to work. I really just like to be engaged. The most boring thing is when I have nothing to do," says Kolata.
"Events that alter our very notion of what it means to be human are few and scattered over the centuries," she observes. Gina Kolata works to ensure that when such millennial debates erupt, she’s there at the axis, focusing public debate.