If we weren’t in the middle of a perfect storm of national political controversies, last week’s announcement from Oregon of the first cloned human embryo might well be dominating the airwaves. Even so, in the past few days my colleagues and I have received many e-mails asking about cloning and its moral significance. Anyone interested in the ethical questions surrounding human cloning could do worse than to read Human Cloning and Human Dignity, a 2002 report from the President’s Council on Bioethics. Although the report is over a decade old, its ethical analysis is well worth revisiting.
In his excellent NRO article about last week’s news, Samuel Aquila makes the important point that the commonly heard distinction between “therapeutic cloning” and “reproductive cloning” is disingenuous, since the creation of a cloned human embryo creates a new human being, and therefore deserves to be called a form of reproduction. (That is why Human Cloning and Human Dignity eschewed those terms and instead settled on the terms “cloning for biomedical research” and “cloning to produce children.”) The fact that cloned embryos have largely the same DNA as an existing human being should not distract us from the fact that they are new and unique human organisms, by virtue of their organic and developmental unity as living beings. Nor does the fact that cloned embryos are sometimes destroyed to create stem cells alter the reality that “therapeutic cloning” creates new, unique human organisms. Creating human beings — whether through cloning, IVF, or for that matter through ordinary sexual reproduction — solely to destroy them for biomedical research is to treat some human beings as resources to be exploited for the benefit of others.
And what of the ethics of cloning to produce children? Assuming that the medical safety of human reproductive cloning could somehow be established beforehand — itself a dubious prospect — the practice of reproductive cloning raises the specter of the eugenic control of human reproduction, and the pursuit of extreme mastery over children by their parents, who would be seeking to define in advance the precise genetic properties of their offspring. Cloning would also generate children who would lack a genetic mother or father. They would have instead an egg donor, a gestational surrogate to carry the child to term, and a donor of the chromosomal material being cloned — though these three roles could all be fulfilled by a single woman, they could just as easily each belong to a different person. (Strictly speaking, the genetic parents of the person being cloned would also be the genetic parents of the cloned child, but they would lack anything like the normal relationship, either biological or social, that genetic parents have with their children.) The deliberate creation of children with these unprecedented parental relationships goes well beyond any of the most pernicious social experimentation on children already being conducted in today’s assisted-reproduction industry.
The experiment reported last week in Oregon brings cloning-to-produce-children one step closer. Other research, like experiments on the cloning of non-human primates, will also bring us closer to cloning-to-produce-children. But the cloning of non-human primates (something that the authors of the recent cloning paper have worked on in the past) is not in itself a violation of human dignity, and a strong case can be made for pursuing the cloning of non-human animals for medical purposes. But we must draw a bright line around any form of human cloning and vigorously oppose it as a morally illicit instrumentalization of human life.
— Brendan P. Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.