Composition II Telecourse

Themes

January 20, 1999
The Issue of Human Cloning
With the recent discovery of the ability to clone an adult sheep, ignites numerous
questions concerning the ethical and moral issues in light of eventually cloning a human
being. The controversity surrounding the eventual possibility of cloning humans. For the
most part, however, the ethical concerns being raised
are exaggerated and misplaced, because they are based on erroneous
views about what genes are and what they can do. The danger,
therefore, lies not in the power of the technology, but in the
misunderstanding of its significance.
Producing a clone of a human being would not amount to
creating a “carbon copy”-an automaton of the sort familiar from
science fiction. It would be more like producing a delayed identical
twin. And just as identical twins are two separate
people-biologically, psychologically, morally and legally, though not
genetically-so a clone is a separate person from his or her
non-contemporaneous twin. To think otherwise is to embrace a belief in
genetic determinism-the view that genes determine everything about us,
and that environmental factors or the random events in human
development are utterly insignificant. The overwhelming consensus
among geneticists is that genetic determinism is false.
As geneticists have come to understand the ways in which genes
operate, they have also become aware of the myriad ways in which the
environment affects their “expression.” The genetic contribution to
the simplest physical traits, such as height and hair color, is
significantly mediated by environmental factors. And the genetic
contribution to the traits we value most deeply, from intelligence to
compassion, is conceded by even the most enthusiastic genetic
researchers to be limited and indirect. Indeed, we need only appeal to
our ordinary experience with identical twins-that they are different
people despite their similarities-to appreciate that genetic
determinism is false.
Furthermore, because of the extra steps involved, cloning will
probably always be riskier-that is, less likely to result in a live
birth-than in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryo transfer. (It took
more than 275 attempts before the researchers were able to obtain a
successful sheep clone. While cloning methods may improve, we should
note that even standard IVF techniques typically have a success rate
of less than 20 percent.) So why would anyone go to the trouble of
cloning?
There are, of course, a few reasons people might go to the
trouble, and so it’s worth pondering what they think they might
accomplish, and what sort of ethical quandaries they might engender.
Consider the hypothetical example of the couple who wants to replace a
child who has died. The couple doesn’t seek to have another child the
ordinary way because they feel that cloning would enable them to
reproduce, as it were, the lost child. But the unavoidable truth is
that they would be producing an entirely different person, a delayed
identical twin of that child. Once they understood that, it is
unlikely they would persist.
But suppose they were to persist? Of course we can’t deny that
possibility. But a couple so persistent in refusing to acknowledge the
genetic facts is not likely to be daunted by ethical considerations or
legal restrictions either. If our fear is that there could be many
couples with that sort of psychology, then we have a great deal more
than cloning to worry about.
Another disturbing possibility is the person who wants a clone
in order to have acceptable “spare parts” in case he or she needs an
organ transplant later in life. But regardless of the reason that
someone has a clone produced, the result would nevertheless be a human
being with all the rights and protections that accompany that status.
It truly would be a disaster if the results of human cloning were seen
as less than fully human. But there is certainly no moral
justification for and little social danger of that happening; after
all, we do not accord lesser status to children who have been created
through IVF or embryo transfer.


There are other possibilities we could spin out. Suppose a
couple wants a “designer child”-a clone of Cindy Crawford or Elizabeth
Taylor-because they want a daughter who will grow up to be as
attractive as those women. Indeed, suppose someone wants a clone,
never mind of whom, simply to enjoy the notoriety of having one. We
cannot rule out such cases as impossible. Some people produce children
for all sorts of frivolous or contemptible reasons. But we must
remember that cloning is not as easy as going to a video store or as
engaging as the traditional way of making babies. Given the physical
and emotional burdens that cloning would involve, it is likely that
such cases would be exceedingly rare.
But if that is so, why object to a ban on human cloning? What
is wrong with placing a legal barrier in the path of those with
desires perverse enough or delusions recalcitrant enough to seek
cloning despite its limited potential and formidable costs? For one
thing, these are just the people that a legal ban would be least
likely to deter. But more important, a legal barrier might well make
cloning appear more promising than it is to a much larger group of
people.
If there were significant interest in applying this technology
to human beings, it would indicate a failure to educate people that
genetic determinism is profoundly mistaken. Under those circumstances
as well, however, a ban on human cloning would not only be ineffective
but also most likely counterproductive. Ineffective because, as others
have pointed out, the technology does not seem to require
sophisticated and highly visible laboratory facilities; cloning could
easily go underground. Counterproductive because a ban might encourage
people to believe that there is a scientific basis for some of the
popular fears associated with human cloning-that there is something to
genetic determinism after all.
There is a consensus among both geneticists and those writing
on ethical, legal and social aspects of genetic research, that genetic
determinism is not only false, but pernicious; it invokes memories of
pseudo-scientific racist and eugenic programs premised on the belief
that what we value in people is entirely dependent on their genetic
endowment or the color of their skin. Though most members of our
society now eschew racial determinism, our culture still assumes that
genes contain a person’s destiny. It would be unfortunate if, by
treating cloning as a terribly dangerous technology, we encouraged
this cultural myth, even as we intrude on the broad freedom our
society grants people regarding reproduction.
We should remember that most of us believe people should be
allowed to decide with whom to reproduce, when to reproduce and how
many children they should have. We do not criticize a woman who takes
a fertility drug so that she can influence when she has children-or
even how many. Why, then, would we object if a woman decides to give
birth to a child who is, in effect, a non-contemporaneous identical
twin of someone else?
By arguing against a ban, I am not claiming that there are no
serious ethical concerns to the manipulation of human genes. Indeed
there are. For example, if it turned out that certain desirable traits
regarding intellectual abilities or character could be realized
through the manipulation of human genes, which of these enhancements,
if any, should be available? But such questions are about genetic
engineering, which is a different issue than cloning. Cloning is a
crude method of trait selection: It simply takes a pre-existing,
unengineered genetic combination of traits and replicates it.
I do not wish to dismiss the ethical concerns people have
raised regarding the broad range of assisted reproductive
technologies. But we should acknowledge that those concerns will not
be resolved by any determination we make regarding the specific
acceptability of cloning.

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