On the Morality Of: Cloning

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:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jim Baerg

    The science fiction of Lois McMaster Bujold is worth reading in this context. Part of the background of her future is the existence of such biotechnology as cloning, artificial wombs, & genetic engineering. She shows both the beneficial uses & the horrifying abuses of such technology.

    She assumes the discovery of a form of faster than light travel (wormhole jumps), which creates the opportunity for many different societies to go in different directions with such abilities.

  • JoshH

    One argument against reproductive cloning I’ve heard in the past is the “Hitler” one. It goes something like “Well, what happens if another Hitler-like ruler comes into power and he decides to make a clone army of super soldiers?” This highlights another misunderstanding people have about cloning. Some people believe when you clone something, it will immediately be the same age/size/stage of development/etc as what is being cloned.

    Too much TV.

  • M.

    How do we decide when an embryo has a functioning brain? How do you define a functioning brain? Pro-life groups claim that this begins as soon as the rudimentary nervous system is developed, which occurs so early in pregnancy that, given your argument, would make abortion impossible for anyone who doesn’t know she is pregnant right off the bat. If we go with a certain amount of autonomous thought or individuality, babies are a couple months old already before this occurs. So it seems like a rather simplistic solution to just say “it should be human whenever it can be considered human.” We have to define what it means to be human first.

  • Chris Swanson

    I have no principle problem with reproductive cloning. People’s expectations for a child just like the one they lost might be a problem, but perhaps there could be a requirement that before they could participate in reproductive cloning, they should have to attend a course that tells you, in great detail, what it is and isn’t.

    As far as defining human life and when it begins… that’s a little trickier, but not much. I think we can all agree that once the child is born, it’s hands-off. No retroactive abortions. :) But tracing back to the point where it actually becomes a human life is harder.

    I’d say anything up the third-trimester and it isn’t a human life, any more than an egg is a chicken. It’s something that has the POTENTIAL to be human, just like the egg can grow up to be a chicken, but it isn’t yet human. Therefore, I have no real problem with cloning cells to use to help people who certainly are human.

    But another interesting thought is this: what if we developed the ability to clone an entire body, minus the brain, age it up to adolescence and then plant someone’s brain into a newer, younger body? Imagine if you could live until your body was worn out and have a clone made that your brain would be put into. I’d be all behind that, provided it was just a brainless body before hand.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    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.

    Isn’t the proper antidote for a misconception education instead of legal action?

    Reproductive cloning as you said is no different than creating an identical twin. I don’t think you’ve made a good enough case for a ban. What I think the objection comes down to for most people is the yuck factor, or the idea of “playing God.” This is some kind of innate knee-jerk reaction and should be analyzed and debunked.

    Whether some people think cloning is a good idea for society or not should not prevent individuals from making this choice. As long as they pay all the costs and treat it like they would a normal child, I don’t see the validity of a social objection.

  • KShep

    As far as the “when life begins” question, it was pretty much settled by a 1973 Supreme Court decision—-yup, Roe v. Wade. The supremes decided that abortion could be legal up until a fetus is viable outside the womb; generally about 24 weeks (if my memory is correct—I could be off by a week or two).

    The key word is viable. I would hazard a guess that any future law that permits reproductive cloning would apply that standard as well.

    But I think the US already banned it, right? Pressure from the religious nuts, as usual.

  • http://aflockoftuxen.ebloggy.com Malfi

    I just wanted to point out that according to this link, it is already possible to create stem cells out of skin cells of the body:
    http://www.wired.com/medtech/stemcells/news/2007/11/skin_cell

    It seemed to me that you assumed that this is not/won’t be possible.

  • Kevin Morgan

    How do we decide when an embryo has a functioning brain? How do you define a functioning brain?

    I believe the reason for putting it at 24 weeks is that’s when the cerebral cortex develops (please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m going from memory right now).

    Also:

    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.)

    If you read Stephen Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” you will see that identical twins are more alike, even when raised separately. Siblings are less alike than twins, but more alike than adopted children raised in the same environment. We are not born blank slates. Nature has more to due with our personalities than nurture, and our peer groups as children have a larger impact on who we become than our parents do.

    Excellent book, I more than likely did it no justice in my summation. Well worth the read.

  • Jim Coufal

    The original post says, “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.”

    Just a personal note to say it doesn’t take cloning to produce an individual “who’d be subject to an impossible and autonomy-defying set of expectations.” I was born nigh on to 70 years ago to replace a 13 year old sister who had died 3 years before. She happened to be buried a short walk from the back of our home, and for the first several years of my life I walked hand in hand with my Mother to her gravesite, was made to kiss her gravestone, heard stories of how good and beautiful she had been, and so on, even to being shown where she had been “laid out” in our home for burial, how many people had come to the funeral, and in countless other ways reminded I was, after all, only a boy. No matter what my accomplishments in life, I have never felt right or whole or satisfactory, and to this day i live in the shadow of a woman (girl) I never met.

    I’m confident there are many others who can attest that impossible and autonomy-defying expectations occur independently of cloning.

  • Alex Weaver

    If you read Stephen Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” you will see that identical twins are more alike, even when raised separately. Siblings are less alike than twins, but more alike than adopted children raised in the same environment. We are not born blank slates. Nature has more to due with our personalities than nurture, and our peer groups as children have a larger impact on who we become than our parents do.

    Uh, the fact that similarity in personality correlates with genetic similarity supports the idea that genetics contributes to personality development, which to my knowledge no one now contests. It does NOT follow that the contributions of environment and learning are negligible (for one thing, if that were true, cognitive therapy would never work).

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    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

    In light of this statement how would you justify or explain why should we care for the enivironment. Let’s suppose that we know for certain that some method we use to harvest the resourceses of the World would seriously damage the enivronment and the life of the people, but the damages would come in affect long after everyone who lived while this practise was going on are dead.

    If potential people have no moral claim on us then we should not have a problem ruining the life of the people who will be living here 300 years from now, but for a lot of people (including me) this seems counter-intuitive.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    That’s a very good question, mcv. I was planning to address it in a future post, but since you brought it up, I’ll discuss it now.

    As I said, the moral interests of merely potential individuals can’t be factored into a decision in universal utilitarianism. Logically it has to be this way, because the number of potential people is unlimited, and trying to take all their hypothetical interests into account would result in moral paralysis. (Would we all be morally obligated to have as many children as possible, to “fulfill” the “desires” of potential people to come into existence? Obviously this is absurd.)

    Of course, any potential person who crosses the line into actuality does have real moral interests, which is why it would be wrong for, say, a pregnant mother to drink heavily or to smoke. An embryo doesn’t have moral interests that can be harmed, but a child does, and if that embryo becomes a child then she is responsible for the harm it suffers from her actions.

    However, there is one exception to this rule, and it’s the one mcv mentioned. While it would be absurd to try to consider the moral interests of specific potential people, it’s not at all absurd to consider the moral interests of the next generation as a whole. We can never know if any specific potential person may come into existence, but absent some exceptional circumstances, we can know that there will be a next generation of human beings, and we can assume that they’ll have some general needs and desires (e.g., clean air and water) which we should provide. Just as the pregnant mother who smokes harms her child and therefore does wrong, even if the child doesn’t yet exist at the time she commits her act, so too would ravaging the environment harm the next generation which we know will come into existence at some point.

  • Joffan

    mcv just beat me to it; I was thinking exactly as you responded ebon, that there is a possible confusion between potential individuals and the inevitable (we hope) generations to come. The former does not lay any claim on us; the latter should guide our usage of every resource and our mechanisms for passing on culture.

    I also think that those generations to come should not weigh on our obligations so heavily that we should seek to obviate all problems they might face; but we should also be aiming to give them a reasonable set of conditions to solve any problems we know about and others that arise. One benefit future generations emphatically will have from us and past generation is the enormous body of knowledge, technology and infrastructure. This is no small advantage to those who have it and we should strive to spread many of these benefits across the globe as well as down the timeline.

  • steve bowen

    I guess it’s all amatter of perspective.
    this letter to new scientist suggests that “ If a life could be created from any old piece of human tissue” then dandruff and a foetus could be seen as morally equivelant.
    Education has to be the point. Take religion out of education than at least people would have nothig but the fact to draw moral conclusons from. Sure those conusions would differ based on ethnicity, politics, faith and personal ctrcumstance. But at the root would be genuine, factual understanding of the issue, not scary fairy tales.

  • steve bowen

    apologies for the above typos by the way, No amount of education it seems can compensate for the effects of a bottle of merlot :)

  • bassmanpete

    One benefit future generations emphatically will have from us and past generation is the enormous body of knowledge, technology and infrastructure.

    There’s no guarantee that another dark age won’t cause that knowledge to be lost to future generations. Hard to imagine in today’s world, where the knowledge is spread around the globe, but not impossible. Just picture the ignorant masses running wild with the state’s blessing as in China’s Cultural Revolution in the ’60s & ’70s, or the Nazis book burning sessions in the ’30s. I’m sure there are many of the religious right who would be happy to see a similar thing happen to science text books, particularly those that mention evolution.

  • Jim Baerg

    Fortunately, burning the science books is unlikely to happen in all the countries at once. The societies that do burn the books will deservedly end up powerless in comparison to those that do not.

  • valhar2000

    Which makes it that much more necessary to ensure that knowledge gets spread around the world.

  • Brad

    Sorry to go off on a tangent like this, but I think I have a valid question here. I was having a discussion with a friend earlier about personhood with respect to fetuses and comas. I essentially had this thought about the moral weight of potential people:

    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.

    My friend countered with the fact that sometimes potential people have a high probability of eventually being actual people, except if certain processes are interfered with by us living people. For example: a fetus has a good chance of coming out as a real person given time and if we don’t do anything to stop it. Could probability be a legitimate way to sift through the moral weights of potential people?


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