In today’s post on atheist morality, I’ll consider the permissibility of two types of human cloning, therapeutic and reproductive. Both types involve implanting a person’s genes into an egg cell and stimulating it to grow. If the resulting embryo is allowed to grow to maturity and be born as a person, that is reproductive cloning; if the embryo is used to harvest stem cells and destroyed before it can grow into anything like a conscious being, that is therapeutic cloning.
I see no intrinsic problem with reproductive cloning. The fear that it would somehow detract from our individuality is baseless. Human beings are far more than just genes – at best, they can give us dispositions or tendencies to act in certain ways. The personality, the essence of a human comes from the countless interactions between genes and environment during development, which can never be recreated perfectly. An individual with the same genes as you will most certainly not be a carbon copy of you. (I note that there already are natural clones – they’re called identical twins – and even when raised in the same home, they do not turn out to be exact duplicates of each other.)
That said, I see a strong reason to outlaw reproductive cloning: not because it would produce exact copies of human beings, but because so many people erroneously think it would. Grieving parents who’ve had a child die, for example, might be tempted to use cloning in an attempt to recreate the deceased person. This is not how cloning works, and anyone who attempts to use it for this purpose is bound to be disappointed. It would only create more misery in the long run – both for the parents who would inevitably have their hopes dashed, and especially for the cloned individual, who’d be subject to an impossible and autonomy-defying set of expectations. As part of respecting the right of all individuals to choose their own course in life, we should forbear from using cloning for this purpose. There is no problem that reproductive cloning solves that could not also be solved through adoption or artificial insemination.
Therapeutic cloning is a different matter. Assuming it remains infeasible to reprogram a person’s own somatic cells to yield stem cells that can be used to treat injury or disease, I see no fundamental problem with creating embryos to extract stem cells for this purpose. Atheists, who do not believe in imaginary supernatural appendages called souls that attach to fertilized eggs, should know that a microscopic embryo with no capacity for thought or feeling does not have the same moral status as a fully grown human being. It has, at best, a potential for individual life, but it is not a human being just as a seed is not a flower. When weighed against the rights of an actual human being who is conscious and is suffering, there should be no comparison.
This conclusion highlights what I see as an important point in the moral system of universal utilitarianism: merely potential people, people who do not yet exist, can exert no moral claim on us. It must be this way; otherwise, we’d be paralyzed by the conflicting demands of the limitless number of possible people who have yet to come into existence. The potential happiness or suffering of an actual person is something that should be factored into any utilitarian calculus, however, since the intent and likely consequences of our actions in the long run matter at least as much as their actual effects in the short term. Considered in this light, embryos without minds or brains can have no moral claim on us. However, as soon as there is any reasonable ground for believing that an embryo has crossed the threshold to being a human with a functioning brain, then it should be considered a person deserving of all the same rights and protections as anyone else.
Other posts in this series: