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Human Cloning


The recent news of the successful cloning of an adult
sheep-in which the sheep's DNA was inserted into an
unfertilized sheep egg to produce a lamb with identical
DNA-has generated an outpouring of ethical concerns. These
concerns are not about Dolly, the now famous sheep, nor
even about the considerable impact cloning may have on the
animal breeding industry, but rather about the 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

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

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

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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