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This Week in the News

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 15th, 2008

South Korea is considering allowing payments to women who provide eggs for the reproductive purposes of others.

In the field of animal cloning, a key licensing venture - Start Licensing - and commerical cloning subsidiary company - Viagen - will merge.

The Sunday Times of London reported that Irish women and couples are becoming reproductive tourists, heading to Spain, the Czech Republic and Crete for more accessible eggs and cheaper treatments.

ScienceNews explored the prospect of genetic doping at the current summer Olympics.

The Strange Saga of "Bernann" McKinney

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 14th, 2008

"Bernann" McKinney and one of her little Boogers (AP)

The story of  the first happy customer of RNL Bio's new pet dog cloning service is almost too outlandish to mock. When we first encountered her last week, Bernann McKinney appeared overjoyed that the spirit of her deceased yet beloved pit bull, Booger, had been recaptured in the five clones. Then we learned that the former beauty pageant queen was on the lam from the British authorities. In the 1970s, she became obsessed with a young man while in college in Utah. She later said, "I loved him so much that I would ski naked down Mount Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose if he asked me to."

McKinney, then known as Joyce McKinney, followed him to the UK, where he was serving as a door-to-door Mormon missionary. In 1977, she and a friend kidnapped  him and held him at a remote cottage as her sex slave for days. Although she was arrested, McKinney fled to Canada disguised as a mime, and then went into hiding in the US disguised as a nun. Years later, the missionary saw McKinney watching him, and police subsequently found handcuffs and a rope in her car.

To top it off, she obtained Booger, the dead cl­oned dog, by breaking into an animal shelter, where he was scheduled to be euthanized after he had attacked some joggers.

Simply put, you can't make this stuff up.

Couple McKinney's saga with an alien love cult, a nation's scientist hero revealed to be a fraud (1, 2), and an eccentric billionaire who spent $10 million trying to clone his dog, and one could dismiss the cloning endeavor as nothing but a freak show. While the practice certainly seems to attract more than its share of eccentrics, a dismissal is inappropriate. Despite a broad consensus that human reproductive cloning  should be banned (as it already is in about sixty countries), there's no shortage of bioethicists and pundits who fail to see anything wrong in the practice, and supposed cloning opponents who limit their concern to matters of safety.

Update (Aug. 15): McKinney is also wanted in Tennessee, where she is accused of convincing a 15-year-old to break into a house so that she could buy a prosthetic leg for her three-legged horse.

Update (Aug. 19): McKinney has now left South Korea, but without her clones of Booger.

Update (Aug 20): The head of RNL Bio, Ra Jeong Chan, said that "criminal records would not disqualify future customers, adding that the cloned animals could even help them find stability and thus prevent crimes" (a paraphrase from the International Herald Tribune).

Previously on Biopolitical Times:



Washington Post: Inadequate supply of Viking sperm a crisis for successful single women

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 14th, 2008

Julie Peterson

Julie Peterson is a 43-year-old successful career woman, a member of the high-IQ society MENSA, a chiropractor, a former radio show host, and a former Playboy Playmate. She had her first child, whom she calls "a beautiful Viking baby," two years ago by buying the sperm of "a tall, blond, blue-eyed Danish engineer" from California Cryobank, the world's largest sperm business. Now desiring not just a second child but one who will be a full genetic sibling to her daughter, she's despondent that the sperm retailer is unable to supply a sample from the same provider.

The cause of her current predicament, apart from her specific reproductive desires, is that the US Food and Drug Administration recently restricted imports of European biological materials in order to prevent the spread of the untreatable and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of "mad cow disease." Peterson said, "I hadn't thought about anything but having another baby with this donor. It was just so surprising and bewildering." 

But how reasonable are Peterson's expectations and disappointments, featured on the front page of the Washington Post?

The fact is that the unavailability of sperm from the sire of Peterson's daughter could have equally resulted from the Cryobank depleting its supply and being unable to obtain more deposits due to the provider's unavailability, change of priorities, illness, etc. And Peterson could have planned ahead and purchased additional sperm when first getting pregnant two years ago. She could have even settled for sperm from a tall, blond, blue-eyed American engineer of Danish descent. Fortunately for her, she has the resources to fly to Denmark on her own, which she will soon do for the third time.

Furthermore, the American government performs little oversight of the assisted reproduction industry, and has come under fierce criticism for taking inadequate steps in the face of mad cow disease.

The greatest benefit of assisted reproductive technologies is to enable the infertile to have children. But Peterson does not fall in that category. It appears that she just does not have a partner during the twilight of her fertile years. Her desire a particular reproductive outcome has collided with what appears to be a sensible, and minimal, regulation. Her sense of entitlement is surpassed only by the silliness of the front page coverage offered by the Washington Post.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

DNA Databases Run Amok

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on August 11th, 2008

Genetic forensics may assist in solving crimes, but the too-common assumption of the technique's infallibility makes it prone to implementation errors. In just a few months, California will expand its DNA database, by collecting samples from anyone arrested - but not necessarily convicted - of a felony. And it's already begun to use "familial matching." But before the Golden State moves ahead, its leaders should look to the challenges and controversies of other nations. 

In Australia, police must now review every crime seemingly solved using "genetic fingerprinting" - that's 7000 cases - after significant mistakes handling and testing samples in a recent case. And in the United Kingdom, which has the world's largest DNA database and has even considered expanding it to all residents, recent research by the Liberal Democratic party revealed that private companies have been allowed access for research purposes. Police officers, who have contributed their DNA voluntarily, were offered - and took - the opportunity to be excluded from the for-profit research. But most contributors neither have their consent nor had the opportunity to withdraw.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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