There should be no moral objections to human cloning or the creation of embryos for life-saving stem cells.by Kenan Malik / May 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
The daily telegraph considers them “criminals.” The Pope condemns their work as “abhorrent.” Jeremy Rifkin warns that they are striking a “Faustian bargain” which could pave the way to a “commercial eugenics civilisation.” The object of this hostility is two doctors, the US-based Panayiotis Zavos and the Italian Severino Antinori who, in March, declared their intention of helping infertile couples conceive through the use of cloning techniques.
From Aldous Huxley’s picture of human production lines in Brave New World to Michael Marshall Smith’s description in his novel Spares of farms where the rich keep clones of themselves so that their organs can be “harvested” for transplants, cloning has been a metaphor for the creation of an immoral, inhuman world. The birth in February 1997 of Dolly the sheep transformed such visions from the realms of science fiction to science fact. It seemed only a matter of time before humans could also be duplicated, a prospect greeted with almost universal condemnation. Even Ian Wilmut, Dolly’s creator, believes that we should “reject this proposed use of cloning.”
I want to argue that the current debate about cloning turns the ethical issues on their head. There are no reasons to regard the cloning of humans as unethical. There is, on the other hand, something deeply immoral about a campaign that seeks to block the advancement, not just of reproductive technology, but also of other medical techniques based on cloning methods which could save countless lives.
There are three main objections to cloning: that it undermines human dignity and personal identity; that it uses people as objects; and that it is unnatural. Opponents argue that it is immoral to create exact copies of people. According to the bioethicist Leon Klass, “the cloned individual will be saddled with a genotype that has already lived. He will not be fully a surprise to the world.” Others worry that unethical governments, or even corporations, may institute a programme to create production line people, perhaps even a race of Adolf Hitlers.
Such arguments misunderstand both the character of cloning and the nature of human beings. To clone an organism-whether Dolly or Adolf Hitler-scientists take an egg and remove its nucleus, the part that includes, among other things, the bulk of the DNA. Next, they remove the nucleus from a cell belonging to the adult that is to be cloned and insert it into the egg. The reconstructed egg is stimulated, either electrically or chemically, to trick it into behaving like a fertilised egg. If this is successful, the egg divides and becomes an embryo, which is then transferred into the uterus of a surrogate mother. Pregnancy then follows its normal course.
Any human child conceived in this fashion will be the genetic twin of the person who is the cell donor. But to have the same genome is not to be the same person. Genes play an important part in shaping who we are but they are not the only influence on us.
If having the same genome means being the same person, then all naturally-born identical twins would be exact duplicates of each other. This is not the case. Identical twins differ in everything from their fingerprints to their personalities. Children conceived with the aid of cloning technology will be even more different from their genetic parents than are most natural twins from each other. Most naturally conceived identical twins grow up in roughly the same environment. Cloned children, on the other hand, will be born into a different family from their “twin,” have different parents and siblings, and have different experiences from the day they are born. In other words they will be nothing like their parent whose genome they inherit.
Children conceived though cloning will be indistinguishable from children conceived naturally, whether these happen to be identical twins or not. Each will be a unique human being with a unique identity and an unpredictable future.
What of the argument that cloning turns human beings into means, not ends? Cloned children, critics say, will simply be the means for their parents’ self-aggrandisement. This may well be true, but it is also true for many children born in conventional ways. Twenty years ago opponents of the then-nascent in vitro fertilisation (IVF) technology also argued that “test-tube” babies were being treated as objects. Anyone who has witnessed the emotional and financial commitment that couples have to invest in IVF treatment will recognise, however, that such children are very much wanted and treasured by their parents. The same will be true for any cloned child.
Faced with the implausibility of most of their arguments, opponents of cloning generally fall back on the claim that cloning is repugnant because it is unnatural. “From time immemorial,” Jeremy Rifkin says, “we have thought of the birth of our progeny as a gift bestowed by God or a beneficent nature.” According to Rifkin, “the coming together of sperm and egg represents a moment of surrender to forces outside of our control.”
Cloning is certainly unnatural. But then so is virtually every human activity. The whole point of any medical intervention, from taking an aspirin to heart surgery, is to ensure that humans are not at the mercy of “forces outside our control.” If we were to look upon human conception as simply a “gift from God,” then contraception, abortion and IVF would all have to be ruled immoral. Cloning is no more unnatural than IVF. If we are happy to accept the latter (as most people are), then why should we not accept the former too?
There is only one argument against human cloning that has any substance. Many experts believe that it is precipitous to attempt to clone human beings today because the procedure is insufficiently safe. It remains difficult to get reconstructed eggs to develop into embryos and many of these embryos show abnormalities. In the case of Dolly, for instance, Ian Wilmut began with 277 reconstructed eggs, of which 29 developed into embryos. Of these 29 embryos only one resulted in a pregnancy that went to term. Given such problems, the consensus among most scientists is that Zavos and Antinori are being hasty in their plans to clone humans. Cloning techniques have yet to be fine-tuned and the risk of conceiving deformed children is too great. The question of safety, however, is not an ethical one. Ethical injunctions are absolute; under no circumstances should we attempt to clone a human. Safety considerations are relative: when the technology has become more refined, we can proceed.
By preventing cloning research, opponents are preventing the development of new treatments that draw upon cloning techniques, and hence are allowing many people to suffer unnecessarily. A case in point is the controversy over “therapeutic cloning.” Therapeutic cloning is a means of growing human tissue that fuses the techniques that helped create Dolly with another new medical technology: the ability to grow embryonic stem (ES) cells.
The cells of an adult human are highly specialised; under normal circumstances a liver cell will always stay a liver cell, and a skin cell can never become anything else. Stem cells, however, are cells that can develop into any kind of tissue: liver, skin, nerve, heart. The best source of such stem cells are tiny embryos, a few days old. If we could take the nucleus of, say, a healthy cell from a patient with Parkinson’s disease, and fuse it with an enucleated stem cell, we could grow brain tissue that could potentially replace the patient’s damaged cells. Because such tissue would be genetically identical to that of the patient, there would be no problem of tissue rejection. Such a technique could help patients with problems from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to diabetes, leukaemia and even heart disease.
Therapeutic cloning is a way of growing human tissues, it has nothing to do with creating new human beings. The embryo is a pin-prick of about two dozen cells; because it could potentially be a human life does not mean that it is one. Anyone who objects to therapeutic cloning must logically object not only to all forms of abortion but to IVF too, which produces spare embryos in pursuit of a successful pregnancy.
According to the Telegraph, “The difference between therapeutic cloning, to create ‘spare part’ organs, and reproductive cloning, to create babies, is only one of purpose-a secondary distinction.” In both cases “the embryo is treated as a disposable object, deprived of any humanity.” The same “fundamental moral objections,” the Telegraph claims, “apply to all human cloning.”
As a result of such arguments, most European states still ban research into therapeutic cloning. Britain finally licensed certain forms of cloning research last year, but only in very limited cases. In the US, the Bush administration is expected to ban federal funding for any form of ES-cell research. In a special report on therapeutic cloning, the journal Nature asked recently why it was that only a dozen or so research teams are pursuing work in such a promising area. A large part of the answer, it concluded, was the degree of political restriction.
Opponents of cloning like to present the debate as one between an immoral science, hell-bent on progress at any cost, and those who seek to place scientific advancement within a moral framework. But what is moral about allowing unnecessary suffering? Theologians and Luddites are using norms drawn from dogmatic and reactionary visions of life to prevent the alleviation of human suffering.