Human Cloning - The Greatest Danger is Ignorance

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Human Cloning – The Greatest Danger is Ignorance

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—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


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 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

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"Human Cloning - The Greatest Danger is Ignorance." 20 Feb 2018
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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


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


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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