the moral clone

prospect, may 2001

The Daily Telegraph considers them 'criminals'. The Pope condemns their work as 'morally abhorrent'. The American writer and management guru Jeremy Rifkin warns that they are striking a 'Faustian bargain' which could pave the way to a 'commercial eugenics civilisation'.

The source of such consternation are 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. 'Cloning may be considered as the last frontier to overcome male sterility', Antinori told an international conference in Rome, 'and give the possibility to infertile males to pass on their genes'.

Few modern technologies have given rise to such dystopian visions as has cloning. 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 rich people keep clones of themselves in a permanent childlike state 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 1977 of Dolly the sheep at Scotland's Roslin Institute transformed such visions from the realms of science fiction to that of scientific fact. It seemed only a matter of time before humans, too, could be similarly duplicated, a prospect that has been greeted with almost universally condemnation. A few months after Dolly's birth Unesco declared cloning to be 'contrary to human dignity'. President Clinton banned the use of federal funds to pursue any such research. In Britain successive government ministers and official commissions have ruled out any possibility of legalising reproductive cloning. Even Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly, 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 as unethical the cloning of humans. 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 potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives, and lessen the suffering of many more.

There are three main ethical 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 philosopher Leon Kass, '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 private 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 in no way do they determine who we are, or how we behave.

If having the same genome means being the same person, then all naturally-born identical twins would be exact duplicates of each other. We know this is not case. Identical twins differ in everything from their fingerprints to their personalities to their political convictions. 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. All naturally conceived identical twins grow up in approximately the same social environment and culture. Cloned children, on the other hand, will be born into a different family from their 'twin', have different parents and siblings, go to different schools, have different friends, be raised in different cultures, 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 techniques 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. The fantasy of creating a race of Adolf Hitlers remains just that - a fantasy.

What of the argument that cloning turns human beings into means, not ends? Cloned children, critics argue, 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 such 'test-tube' babies were being treated as objects, not as human beings. Anyone who has witnessed the huge amount of emotional and financial commitment that couples have to invest in IVF treatment recognises, however, that such children are very much wanted and treasured by their parents. The same is likely to be true for any cloned child.

Faced with the implausibility of most of their ethical arguments, opponents of cloning generally fall back on the claim that cloning is repugnant because it is unnatural. 'From time immemorial', Jeremy Rifkin wrote recently in the Guardian, '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 and no less 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.

There are no moral (as opposed to practical) objections to cloning humans. But there is something morally repugnant about the campaign against cloning. By preventing cloning research, opponents are helping to prevent the development of new medical treatments that draw upon cloning techniques, and hence allowing many people to suffer unnecessarily.

A good 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 culture 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, called blastocysts. If we could take the nucleus of, say, a healthy cell from a patient with Parkinson's disease, and fuse it with an enucleated egg, we could, from the resultant blastocyst, 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 no problem of tissue rejection as there often is with normal transplants. Such a technique could potentially help patients with a myriad of problems, from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's to diabetes and leukaemia and even heart disease.

Some critics argue that by producing embryos for the harvesting of ES cells, scientists are creating and disposing of human beings. But the idea that a barely-visible ball of undifferentiated cells is a human being is as implausible as the belief that by cloning a genome one duplicates a person . There is nothing new in creating and disposing of embryos. It happens routinely, for instance, in IVF treatment. If this is acceptable in creating life, why not in saving life too?

Therapeutic cloning has nothing to do with creating new human beings. It is imply a way of growing human tissues in a way that can help us repair damaged ones. But opponents have used the spectre of reproductive cloning to limit research into this potentially life-saving technique. 'The softest road to hell', the Conservative MP Edward Leigh told parliament last year, 'is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without signposts'. Therapeutic cloning, such critics argue, is part of a slippery slope to reproductive cloning, and hence should also be banned, or at least very tightly regulated.

According to the Telegraph, 'The difference between so-called therapeutic or research 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 means, not an end: a disposable object, deprived of any dignity or humanity.' The same 'fundamental moral objections', the Telegraph concluded, '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 after years of prevarication, and still only in highly limited cases. In the USA, 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 highly promising area. A large part of the answer, it concluded, was the degree of political restriction being placed upon such research.

Opponents of cloning like to present the debate as one between an immoral science, hellbent on progress at any cost, and those who seek to place scientific advancement within a moral framework. But what is moral about causing unnecessary suffering by creating obstacles to medical advance? And what can be more ethical than attempting to alleviate such suffering through the development medical and scientific techniques? It is about time we stopped indulging theologians and Luddites in the absurd myth that they occupy the moral high ground in the debate about cloning. They don't. They are using moral norms drawn from dogmatic and reactionary visions of life to prevent the practical alleviation of human suffering.