What's wrong with Cloning?

by Jay Johansen


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At this point I must break with the mainstream of the pro-life community, and say that I see nothing wrong with cloning in principle.

Let me hasten to add that this does not mean that I approve of every possible method or application of cloning. (I'll elaborate on this shortly.) I think it is quite reasonable and consistent to say that I have no objection to X in principle, while at the same time objecting to specific instances of X. Like, I don't think automobilies are evil per se, but that doesn't stop me from saying that it is wrong to deliberately run somebody over!

The arguments against

Let's look at the arguments generally offerred against cloning. I believe they can be fairly summarized as follows:

  1. Clones will be grown to produce "spare parts" for other people, or to be used for medical research. Thus, clones -- who will be, of course, human beings -- will be treated as disposable property, with fewer rights than any slave, bred and killed for the benefit of others.
  2. By making a copy of a person, cloning robs people of their individuality.
  3. By creating a person through an artificial process, cloning is "playing God", trying to replace the process created by God with one of our own invention.
  4. Some number of babies -- embryos, if you prefer -- created by cloning will die because of technical problems in the process, and more will be killed deliberately because they are imperfect. Thus, cloning will inevitably result in the death of innocent babies.
Let's look at each of these arguments in turn.

Cloning for parts

I certainly agree that it is wrong to kill someone so that you can "harvest" his body parts, whether that person is an adult, a child, or an embryo. I will join with anyone who condemns using a cloned human being as a piece of property. But ... people can and have treated others as property -- we call it "slavery" -- for millenia, and to date none of these victims have been clones. And one can surely imagine clones being created who are not abused in any way. Treating people as property and killing them for your convenience are terrible evils, but these things happened before anybody thought of cloning, and they will, sadly but surely, continue to happen whether cloning becomes a reality or not.

An analogy: For centuries, black people have been the victims of racism and injustice. Does it therefore follow that the solution to racism is to make it illegal for black people to have children, so that once there are no more black people, that therefore there will be no more racism? I suppose it is true that if there were no black people, that black people could no longer be persecuted, but it is not at all clear that this is a good and just solution to the problem. And surely if there were no black people, there would still be other people who would be persecuted. Racists might have to seek out new groups to dislike, but I'm sure they would rise to the challenge.

Likewise, if clones turn out to become a persecuted minority, then surely the solution is not to eliminate all the clones, but rather to eliminate the persecution.

Loss of individuality

This argument is surely considerably weakened by the simple fact that biologically, a clone is essentially an identical twin of the original person, and identical twins already exist in the world and do not appear to have unduly destroyed human individuality. (For that matter, ordinary siblings often resemble each other enough to cause confusion.)

Yes, it is true that twins do sometimes complain of problems with maintaining their individuality. But those who do can find ways to minimize the problem. I knew a pair of twins in high school who had very different hair styles, dressed differently, and had different ... shall we say "body shapes". When I first met them, I didn't realize they were identical twins -- they didn't look "identical" at all.

On the other hand, others have fun with it. I once saw an interview with an elderly Southern woman who had an identical twin sister, and who, in the stereotypical style of proper Southern belles, expressed disdain for twins who did not routinely dress alike. "Twins", she declared primly, "should dress like twins." While people like to be seen as individuals, they also like to identify with a group, and many twins appear to enjoy the special identification they have with this other person.

I suppose if hundreds or thousands of clones of the same person were created, this could become a bigger issue. There could be a difference between being "one of the Miller twins" and being one of the million Miller clones. Or at that point would it just not matter, that being one of the "Miller clones" in such a society would be like saying someone is Italian or has brown hair in our society. Yes, he belongs to a group with some common genes, but so what?

In short, this might be a minor problem for some, but it would be on the same scale with millions of other little problems that people face in life. Others would see it as a minor plus. Perhaps in some circumstances it would be a bigger problem. It should surely be considered in any decision to create a clone, but of itself it's not a sufficient reason to make a decision.

Playing God

This argument can be made against almost any technology -- and often has been. We tinker with God's creation of life every time we take medicine or have a tooth filled. For that matter, we tinker with God's creation every time we cut our hair or use anti-perspirant.

God specifically instructed people to subdue the earth and have dominion over it (Gen 1:26-27): The ability to bend nature to our wishes is not only an ability that was given to us by God, it is an ability that we are commanded to use. This does not mean, of course, that every possible use of every possible technological advance is good. But it does mean that technology in general is good.

Presumably God had good reason for creating the reproductive process the way he did, and we should not be cavalier about replacing it with our own method. But neither should we rule out the possibility of using our God-given abilities to alter nature to meet our needs.

Each application of technology must be judged on its own merits.

Casualties along the way

I find this argument the most persuasive. Surely the first attempts to create human clones will have many failures, resulting in dead and crippled embryos, that is, people.

All medical research involves some risk before any real good can come out of it. In general, medical researchers have taken it as a fundamental principle of ethics that anyone who is used in a medical experiment must be told in advance of the risks and must give his consent. When children are involved, who presumably do not have the ability to make an informed decision for themselves, the traditional solution has been to let the parents make the decision for him, as long as there is no reason to believe that the parents do not have the child's best interests at heart. The same standard could be applied here. If someone says that he wants a clone of himself made so that it can be harvested for body parts to treat some illness in the parent, then clearly this person is thinking of his own best interests and not the child's, and he should not have the right to give consent to any experiment. But if, for example, someone wants a clone made because she is unable to conceive naturally and believes this to be the best way for her and her husband to have a child, there is no reason to believe that her interests are in conflict with her child's, and under traditional rules of medical ethics, her consent in the child's behalf could be considered acceptable.

Yes, I know it's not that simple. If she knows that the chances of the child dying in this procedure are high, doesn't that of itself indicate a lack of concern for her child? Maybe, but this gets really hard to say. Suppose you have been pregnant seven times and have had seven miscarriages. It's surely fair to suppose that there is some problem here, so that if you become pregnant again, this child is likely to die too. Is it wrong for you to get pregnant again? I say no. While it may well be true that if you conceive again the child faces greater risk of death than most children, still, it is not your intention to put your child at risk. Perhaps one could say that you are being reckless about your child's safety. But you are not doing it for selfish or irresponsible reasons.

The argument of risk should make us pause and think carefully, but it should not end the discussion. Life is full of risks. We must weight the potential benfits of any action against the risks.

Why clone?

So what are the benefits? Why create a clone anyway?

This is where my support for cloning begins to wane. I am hard pressed to think of a good reason to do it.

To be killed and their bodies scanvenged for spare parts? This is so obviously immoral that it should be dismissed instantly.

To duplicate great geniuses? Well, I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, I may write an article just on that. Let's just say, maybe.

So that we can manufacture the "perfect human being" and then clone him to create a race of supermen? Sounds scary to me. Surely the people with the wealth and power to do something like this would inevitably decide that the "perfect human being" was someone who meekly obeyed their every command.

As a way for infertile couples to reproduce? Maybe, but surely a technique that unites a sperm and egg to create a new combination of chromosomes is more desirable, and there are already plenty of techniques like that out there, and probably more to come.

Conclusions

Is cloning immoral in principle? I say no.

Is cloning immoral, as it is being pursued today? For the most part, I say yes. Most of the reasons given are immoral or unwise.

Are there moral applications of cloning? Probably, but I'm hard pressed to name any clearly beneficial applications.

Is more research a good idea? Sure, almost always. I hasten to add, As long as it is pursued in a moral, ethical manner.


Posted 4 Sep 2001.

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