Recent advances in stem cell research have reopened the controversy that has surrounded the issue of human cloning.[i] There is widespread opposition throughout the world to the reproductive cloning of a human being. Many countries have enacted laws prohibiting it. The UN struggled with the issue for years and finally enacted a non-binding Declaration on Human Cloning in 2005, calling for a ban on all forms of human cloning “inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.”
Cloning of animals and plants does not draw the same moral outrage. Why does human cloning cause such a firestorm of opposition? Going back to the UN declaration, how does cloning threaten “human dignity?” Claims that some aspect of medical research or practice violates or threatens human dignity are common in the field of medical ethics, and they usually refer to developments in genetics or reproductive technology. Ruth Macklin, a recognized authority in the field of medical ethics, skewered that idea, saying that “Dignity is a useless concept. It means no more than respect for persons or their autonomy.”[ii]
If I discovered that my parents did not produce me by the usual sweaty method, but did it in a petri dish instead, I doubt that I would suddenly feel undignified. Whether a genome contains DNA from both parents, only one, or neither does not affect an individual’s dignity or individuality. Do adopted children lack dignity? The source of the DNA is a minor, almost incidental, part of the process of parenthood. If none of my DNA came from either of my parents, they would still be my parents who cared for me and cared about me. Any feelings of dignity and self-esteem that I have as a child are the result of their love and caring, demonstrating that I am important to them. What I contribute to society as an adult will determine my self-worth later in life.
The second claim in the UN Declaration, that cloning is incompatible with “the protection of human life,” seems to be a criticism of the current state of cloning science, and the probability of failure of the cloned egg to develop into a normal fetus. Naturally-fertilized eggs often fail to attach to the uterus wall, are spontaneously aborted or result in a fetus with birth defects. Following the same logic, sexual reproduction should also be prohibited. The uterus is a dangerous place for fertilized eggs, and they are often defective.
All modern medical procedures started out as risky propositions. Would you want an 18th century surgeon to remove your appendix with his unsterilized instruments? Would you use a bottle of patent medicine that was sold by a peddler traveling between rural villages in the 19th Century? They were called “snake oil salesmen,” and most of their pills and potions were worthless or worse. If surgery and pharmaceuticals had been banned because they were too risky, we would still be bleeding people to cure diseases.
Another common secular argument claims that cloned individuals will have a “loss of identity” as a unique individual. Identical twins are natural clones. While they clearly share a special bond, there is no evidence that they lack personal identity.
The only thing that is threatened by a cloned individual is the Judeo/Christian insistence that God must be in charge of conception, and humans should not infringe on His authority. At the bottom of all the opposition, both religious and secular, is the idea that human life is somehow different from other life forms. Religionists say it is “sacred.” This is also the basis for their opposition to abortion and contraception. According to Scripture, humans are supposed to “be fruitful and multiply,” and any attempt to tamper with God’s will is equivalent to blasphemy.
Religious believers have the right to reject human interventions in the reproductive process, and even to publicly condemn them if they feel obliged to display their self-righteousness, but they cannot show that these actions by others cause personal harm to themselves. Therefore, they have no right to impose those views on others, any more than they do with abortion, contraception or gay marriage. Even if they represent a political majority, the Constitution, through the Establishment and Equal Protection clauses prohibits them from enforcing their religious beliefs through enactment of oppressive laws that infringe on the liberty of others.
What is morally or ethically wrong with parents choosing to have a blue-eyed blonde daughter who will reach 68 inches in height, and have no genetic defects that could lead to diseases in later life? In an increasingly overpopulated world, why must we rely on the crapshoot of “god’s will” (i.e., random chance) to choose the genetic makeup of our children?
One prominent doctor even claimed that human cloning violates some cosmic law. Dr. Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, says the special status of humans described in the Book of Genesis should be heeded not because of the Bible’s authority, but because the message reflects a “cosmological truth.” He apparently believes that what we humans decide on our little speck of a planet is applicable to any other life form in the vastness of the Universe! Despite the hubris and inanity of his statement, it is evident that a fairly large percentage of the world population agrees with him, and not just about human cloning. It may also explain the widespread opposition to genetically modified food.
Human cloning can serve as an alternative means of reproduction, particularly for infertile couples or same-sex couples who wish to have biologically related offspring. This is already being done, utilizing a technique called “in-vitro fertilization” (IVF). IVF differs from cloning in that it uses human sperms and eggs to create the fertilized egg containing the genetic material, rather than a somatic (body) cell which contains all the genetic material. Approximately 200,000 babies are born each year in the United States via IVF. Why is IVF legal, and cloning illegal?
Clearly more development of cloning technology must be done before it can be approved for widespread public use. The potential benefits of this are great. Cloning technology can be used to test for and perhaps cure genetic diseases. The average person carries 8 defective genes inside their cells. It may be possible to ensure that we no longer suffer because of our defective genes. For example, women with high risk of genetic diseases like Downs Syndrome or Tay-Sachs could avoid the risk by cloning so that recessive genes are not expressed in their children.
When new technologies emerge, they often represent both opportunities and dangers. The harnessing of atomic power is a vivid illustration of that. Many countries have benefited from clean atomic power, despite its drawbacks, but the availability of weapons-grade material continues to proliferate, defying efforts to contain it. Human cloning will be no different. We can try to stop it, but if it can be done, it will be done eventually. The potential benefits are great, but the dangers must be addressed.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.