Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Much Stranger Than Fiction

By Ben Winters

JULY 26, 1999: 

The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology by Lori B. Andrews (Henry Holt), $25, 264 pages

Lori B. Andrews' "The Clone Age" has gone directly to the number one spot on my "Creepiest Books Of All Time" list. Like Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," the previous champion, it's all about the hubristic efforts of mere mortals to create life; if only, like "Frankenstein," "The Clone Age" was fiction.

Andrews takes us limb by limb through the family tree of nuevo-genesis: Fertilization both in vitro and in vivo, embryo transfer and surrogate motherhood, genetic screening and, finally and most chillingly, cloning. Her style is straightforward and journalistic, with enough laymen's science to suggest the technological complexities involved, and a strong first person voice to navigate the ethical quagmires.

From the opening chapter, which details the efforts of Dr. Robert Edwards, the first scientist to successfully fertilize a woman's egg outside her body, Andrews establishes her formula: Setting of time and place, followed by the specs of the procedure at hand, a few anecdotes to show the human side, and then a careful consideration of the moral dilemmas implied. In Edwards' case, the voice of disapproval is provided by James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA: "You can only go ahead with your work if you accept the necessity of infanticide. There are going to be a lot of mistakes."

Besides infanticide, the book's leitmotifs include incest ("If he put the man's embryo in his sister, would that violate his state's ban on incest?") and abortion; if you thought the subject was controversial now, wait until you read about the "selective reduction" of multiple fetuses and genetic screening. Among the scarier statistics in "The Clone Age," and there are many, is that if and when prenatal DNA scans become universal, "12 percent of potential parents [in the U.S.] said they would abort a fetus with a genetic predisposition to be fat."

"The Clone Age" is full of fascinating characters. There's Dr. Cecil Jacobson, the infertility specialist who impregnated dozens of women with his own seed. There's the Canadian quintuplets ruthlessly exploited for commercial gain by their government. There's political infighting at the Human Genome Project, a cult of clone-worshipers and a little something called electroejaculation.

The field of reproductive technology offers ample opportunity for both societal soul-searching and wry humor. A section describing egg donors - women whose inseminated ova are transplanted into other women's wombs - ends with a riddle: "What do you call a woman who provides the genetic, but not the gestational, component for reproduction? A father."

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