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“Orphan Black” is back! Reflections on reproductive cloning and eugenics

| April 17, 2015

Human fascination with twins is at least as ancient as the Greek tale of Leda and the swan. Seduced by the swan–Zeus in disguise–Leda gives birth, not merely to twins, but quadruplets. The females, Helen and Clytemnestra, cannot be more different. But the boys, Castor and Polydeuces, are identical in all ways–but for Polydeuces being a god and his brother merely human. Even so, Castor is placed in the sky with his twin to form the Gemini constellation. He is promoted to god status, and that’s important to any fan of the hit Canadian science fiction series Orphan Black. Starting Saturday, April 18, we can expect to hear more about Leda and her children, along with a plethora of biotechnology issues.

Airing on BBC America, the first two seasons already have included a goldmine of conversation starters highlighting social implications of human reproductive cloning, and, more importantly, policy and societal issues of other biotechnologies that human cloning could facilitate. In particular, Orphan Black puts a spotlight on eugenics, reopening a discussion that started in 1931 with Brave New World, the novel by Aldous Huxley, who imagined a future in which humans have moved beyond natural reproduction. Instead, babies in Huxley’s fictional world begin their lives in mechanized hatcheries after being genetically designed. Setting his story in mid-26th century London, Huxley probably did not expect biotechnology to advance as quickly as it has in the last 84 years, but later sci-fi writers saw the advances coming sooner. Star Trek, for example, took on the issue in the 1960s by creating the character Khan Noonien Singh, the eugenically bred villain who came to age as early as the 1990s in the Star Trek backstory.

Though apparently set in and around present day Toronto, Orphan Black cleverly alludes to Brave New World by slipping the author’s name into the script in two different ways. “Huxley” is a fictional train stop where the story begins. Later, we meet Dr. Aldous Leekie, a scientist who is not only pro-eugenics, but developing artificial wombs to bring on the age of motherless birth. The plot depends on the revelation, early in the first season, that several grown women are genetic identicals–clones, all born late March to early April of 1984 from a handful of surrogate mothers. The emerging backstory starts with human cloning experiments – appropriately called “Project Leda”–that began in the 1970s–either in Canada or the United States. At this juncture in the series, the precise location and political jurisdiction where the fictional experiments occurred are left vague. This may be intentional on the part of the writers, to obviate potential criticism from storyline knit pickers that any cloning-related experiments, past or present, would have alerted government authorities.

The geographical vagueness notwithstanding, there is one message that Orphan Black made clear in the first two seasons. Because of phenomenal writing, coupled with an amazing performance by actress Tatiana Maslany–who gives each clone a completely distinct personality, accent and world view–the audience learns early that human cloning per se should not be a problem. Instead, the red flag goes up based on what Dr. Leekie, and others drawn to a movement that he calls “Neolution”, have been trying to do with the clones, or to the embryos that led to them. This means eugenics along with commodification: turning the clones, or at least the DNA sequences that made them possible, into commercial goods. Before unpacking these issues, though, let’s lay out a foundation of science issues central to Orphan Black, along with related policy questions.

Human reproductive cloning: Should we be worried?

Human cloning is divided into two categories that are approached differently in terms of policy. There is human reproductive cloning–cloning to create a baby genetically identical to the parent. This is the scenario that worries more people and the type of cloning that led to the birth of the characters that Maslany portrays in Orphan Black. There is also human cloning to create embryonic stem cells and replacement tissues and organs, without creating babies. Known as human therapeutic cloning, this area of research typically alarms anti-abortion activists, but not everyone else, because it doesn’t produce new people. But is it rational to worry, even about the reproductive category of human cloning?

Like twins separated at birth, by interacting with one another, the clones of Orphan Black learn that the interaction between nature and nurture is complex. While sharing genome might put them all at risk for the same medical condition (a defect manifesting with polyps in the lungs and uterus in at least three of the clones, and killing one of them), it doesn’t mean that the disease will actually develop in everybody of the clone line. Genes are affected by the environment, beginning with the environment inside the uterus of one’s birth mother. Unlike twins, most of the clones did not even share the same intrauterine environment. The only exceptions are two clones: Sarah and Helena. Near the end of season 1, we learned that these two women actually were born of the same mother, implanted with a cloned embryo that subsequently split early in the pregnancy. That’s the same process that leads to natural identical twins, albeit from an embryo formed the natural way.

Thus, while Sarah and Helena share a genome with several other women, biologically these two have still more in common –as much as natural identical twins have in common. Though born around the same time as Sarah and Helena, the other clone “sisters” developed in the uteri of different mothers, so they actually have less biological commonality than natural twins do. At the end of the second season, we also meet a member of the clone line, Charlotte, who is just eight years old. Genetically, she’s identical to the other clones, but doesn’t appear identical, because of her youth. She looks like her clone sisters did when they were that age, but then some children born naturally often look remarkably like one of their parents in childhood photos. At the same time, the differences between the clones apart from looks, due to growing up in different environments, are emphasized strongly.

“There are nine of you?” one of the characters asks Sarah after learning about the clones.

“No!” Sarah replies, having met a few of her genetic identicals and seeing how different their lives are from hers. “There’s only one of me!”

Absorbing all of this leaves us pondering why cloning one’s self should be an ethical problem –if proven safe and performed merely for the sake of producing a child to raise like any other. In other words, we should be no more concerned about reproductive cloning than people were about in vitro fertilization embryo transfer (IVF-ET) before it was achieved in 1978. On the other hand, Orphan Black makes it equally clear that there is an ethical problem, if reproductive cloning might not be safe –if the clones are at high risk for health problems– or, if the purpose of the procedure is something other than creating normal children.

How realistic are thirty year-old human clones?

Like the Star Trek episode that introduced Khan, the Orphan Black story depends on a major biological milestone happening earlier than we might expect. How could Orphan Black imagine human reproductive cloning succeeding in the early 1980s? We could fall back on the argument used often in science fiction of the need to suspend belief and just enjoy the show, but we don’t need to do it in this case, since the writers have been very careful not to say much about how the cloning was achieved. We tend to think of the word “cloning” as synonymous with the technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). Take the nucleus from any cell in your body, other than germ cells, use it to replace the nucleus of an unfertilized egg cell, and this can develop into a human embryo whose genome matches yours. This is the strategy that was used to clone Dolly the sheep in 1996, and it makes creation of an enormous number of clones possible from the same individual.

But another route to reproductive cloning is simply to split an embryo. It’s the same process that leads to identical twins in nature, and it can be done intentionally in the lab, for instance with an embryo produced by IVF that has not yet undergone embryo transfer (implantation into the uterus of the birth mother). Embryo splitting is performed in non-human mammals and has been feasible as a human cloning technique since the 1978 IVF-ET milestone. So it’s reasonable to imagine it as the approach used by the fictional Project Leda scientists, leading to the birth of the Orphan Black clones in early spring of 1984.

Unlike SCNT, the number of clones that can be made using embryo splitting is finite, but so far Orphan Black has mentioned fewer than a dozen clones of the line that includes Sarah. That means fewer than a dozen adult clones, and we could imagine a few cycles of embryo splitting leading to the birth of these characters with no need for human SCNT. In the case of Charlotte, the eight-year-old clone, we learned that she’s the sole survivor of more than 400 new attempts to reproduce the clone line. She apparently has a physical defect. It’s a leg condition, not the illness that has stricken three of her elder clone sisters, suggesting that whatever the scientists did to produce her around 2005 might have entailed safety issues, but possibly different from the safety issues of the procedure used in 1983 (when the adult clones began embryonic life). Or, the brace on Charlotte’s leg could just be a red herring.

Legal considerations

Despite efforts over the years by various groups concerned about human cloning for different reasons, federalism has prevented the emergence of a nationwide human cloning ban in the United States. At present, several U.S. states either prohibit –or prohibit the use of public money to support– human reproductive cloning, while a smaller number of states also prohibit human therapeutic cloning. Meanwhile, in Canada, human cloning (both reproductive and therapeutic) has been prohibited since 2004. The adult clones of Project Leda would have been created long before the Canadian law went into effect, but as the series progressed we learned that cloning was just the beginning of things. Implanted into surrogate mothers in various countries, the clones have been subjects of various experiments and manipulations since embryohood. Some of the manipulations –for instance incorporation of a “barcode” DNA sequence carrying a message that the clones are patented material, and thus property– might be equally dismissible by any North American government. But other things done to the clones that are emerging in the backstory would entail very complex legal debates, particularly in the context of events that the series spreads over both sides of the US-Canadian border.

Science, society, and religion

One of the most fascinating dimensions of Orphan Black is the Neolutionist movement that the series uses as the driving force for much of the storyline. The first two seasons provide glimpses of strange phenomena, such as a Neolution nightclub full of people with strange physical modifications that that they consider to be enhancements. This includes a man with a tail, and by the end of season 2 we learn that the enhancement philosophy has been the driving force of many of the negative developments in terms of how the clones have been treated.

Initially, this might sound as if Orphan Black were promoting an image of misguided scientists. But the scientists on the series are depicted as diverse in their beliefs. While the Dyad Institute, the company that runs Project Leda, is controlled by Neolutionists, it turns out that the worst, most ruthless Neolutionists are not actually scientists themselves. Of the few characters who are both scientists and Neolutionists, Dr. Leekie is the only one who has done something horrible, but he is not without a good side. During season 2, he attempts to sway the Neolutionist leader of Dyad (a clone who was raised in the Neolution movement) away from the hard-handed tactics. He also puts himself at risk helping a different clone, a clone who is ill, with her medical treatment. This contrasts the science community on Orphan Black with the element of society that most opposes Project Leda: religious extremists called “Proletheans”. Like the scientists, the Proletheans are not uniform in their beliefs, but they, at least their leaders, are pure evil. Proletheans are constantly engaged in murder, physical abuse, and other major crimes and have absolutely no remorse about it.

While it may look as though Project Leda is now going to be run with a softer hand, the final episode of season 2 also introduces us to an entirely new batch of clones, this one male. Unlike the female batch, the male clone project is controlled by the military. Given the culture behind Project Leda that emphasizes the idea of controlling human evolution through enhancement, it’s hard not to suspect that the military male cloning project would be involved in something similar. It seems likely that we’ll learn that they’ve enhanced the male clones to develop ideal soldiers, giving them the strength of the gods. Therefore, it’s fitting that the male cloning experiments should be named for a human who was promoted to god status: Project Castor.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician, and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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