Talk of Cloning Ted Williams May Overshadow All-Star Game

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - Tuesday's Major League Baseball All-Star game not only will include a tribute to the late Boston Red Sox player Ted Williams, but it may also be overshadowed by a family feud involving Williams' remains. That feud has many baseball fans debating medical ethics and cloning.

Williams, who died July 5 at age 83, is considered by many to be one of baseball's greatest hitters. Williams, known for his good eye, quick wrists and scientific approach to hitting, was the last player to have a .400 batting average for a season.

He played for the Boston Red Sox from 1939-1942 and 1946-1960, a career interrupted by military service during World War II and two major injuries.

Williams' son, John Henry Williams, reportedly sent his father's remains to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., to be cryogenically frozen and stored at minus 320 degrees.

According to Williams' daughter, Barbara Joyce "Bobby Jo" Williams Ferrell, John Henry (her half brother) previously said that he hoped to sell their father's DNA some day. Others speculate that John Henry may someday attempt to bring his father back to life or try to use the DNA to clone him.

Ferrell wanted to seek a court injunction to prevent any such ambitions and instead have her father's remains cremated and scattered over the Florida Keys, where he enjoyed fishing. But according to the Boston Herald, the remains have already been frozen.

Mary Cannon, executive director of The Bioethics Project, hopes to make John Henry's rumored goals illegal.

"I do think it raises some troubling issues if their intention is to reproduce him by cloning," said Cannon.

The notion of designing specific traits of a new human being is ethically wrong, Cannon said.

"In the area of designer babies ... now we're going to see a situation where people buy and sell personality traits and athletic abilities and intellectual abilities and try to build their own baby from scratch," said Cannon. "It commodifies childbearing and turns it into a for-profit activity.

"What would it be like if children were born into a world, in which if they didn't turn out a particular way, they were seen as disappointments to their parents who paid good money to have them have a baseball gene or an artistic gene or whatever," Cannon added.

UCLA-San Francisco scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, who serves on President Bush's council on bioethics (, said such reproductive cloning is considered ethically out-of-bounds by the vast majority in the scientific community.

"The cloning which has been done in animals has been so risky and so fraught with producing abnormalities that nobody in their right mind would think of doing such a thing with humans," said Blackburn. "An individual may want to do that, but [it's] an absurdly risky thing to do -- to knowingly make somebody who might very well be born with terrible deformities. That would be worse than negligent.

"I don't know of exceptions, excepting really the very fringe few who are thinking about doing it," she added.

However, Professor Robert Edwards, the scientist who pioneered in-vitro fertilization two decades ago, has said that if such abnormalities can be eliminated, he would favor cloning to help infertile couples produce a child.

For its part, though, the bioethics commission -- comprised of leading scientists, doctors, ethicists, social scientists, lawyers, and theologians -- unanimously concluded that reproductive cloning should be outlawed, even while failing to reach a consensus on the ethics of creating cloned embryos for scientific research.

In any case, Blackburn believes, it's not realistic to hope for a cloned Ted Williams anytime soon.

"I would say if that was their great hope, to find some gene combination that somehow accounted for his abilities as a player, I'd say 'in their dreams,'" she said.

"People have been trying to find genetic bases for certain kinds of behaviors [and] mental illnesses, but they're terribly hard to find because they're probably complicated combinations of all sort of genetic components plus the environment," Blackburn added.

Even Ed Buckner, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, finds the notion of selling Ted Williams' DNA objectionable.

He said the council has adopted a declaration in defense of cloning that also admits it's possible that "future developments in cloning human tissues or even cloning human beings will create moral predicaments beyond the capacity of human reason to resolve."

Nevertheless, Buckner said, "We think that the issues swirling around cloning and things related to cloning, like stem cell research, are issues that ought to be decided on their scientific merits, on the merits in terms of ethics and not on what we consider to be arbitrary religious grounds.

"For the most part, I don't think Congress has any business deciding these things," he said. "Instead, the scientific community should be calling those shots.

Buckner said "it seems fairly clear that if you had [Williams'] DNA and wanted to sell it for profit that that would be unethical," because it would "violate reasonable ethical canons" and basic human dignity.

"If somebody is just ... cloning human beings to create new human beings, I suspect that's something I would find unacceptable," Buckner added

The House of Representatives has passed a bill banning all forms of human cloning, which President Bush has indicated he will sign.

However, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has not scheduled a vote on the matter. Daschle supports a competing bill that would ban only reproductive cloning.

E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.