The Issue of 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 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 

 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 

 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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