Politics & Policy

Missing Link

Marriage and cloning.

Something is missing from Human Cloning and Human Dignity, the report of the President’s Council on Bioethics: recognition of the harm reproductive cloning would do to the structure of the American family.

The omission is remarkable because this is surely one of the strongest arguments against cloning. Human Cloning and Human Dignity has been widely lauded for its fair and thorough coverage of the arguments on both sides of the cloning issue. The report even says that, when it comes to presenting these arguments, the council has decided to err on the side of inclusion. Nonetheless, the report falls almost completely silent on the implications of reproductive cloning for the structure of the family.

Surely at least some members of the president’s council could see those implications. They are hardly obscure. Cloning to produce children has the potential to undermine marriage and the family by enabling unmarried women and men to have children, without the assistance of a second parent.

Of course, a single women can have a child now, but not without facing some human complications. A woman can go to a sperm bank, but that means discomfort over the father’s anonymity. More often, a Murphy Brown will have her child by a man she knows. She will get pregnant by him secretly, or on condition that he will decline to press his rights as a father. But cloning will liberate human vanity to allow at least some among us to produce a child wholly in their own image, and thus free of any legal or emotional complications related to the existence of a second parent.

Perhaps this narcissistic impulse will be limited to a few individuals, but I think it would be foolish to bet on that outcome. Humans have a deep drive to reproduce, and a technology that offers both the possibility of a kind of genetic immortality and no-strings-to-a-partner parenthood will almost certainly find a large market once the initial fear factor wears off. America, after all, is the home of individualism. That is both our glory and our danger. Given the cultural background, many unmarried individuals will be tempted to clone.

If that is true, reproductive cloning will spur a substantial increase in single parenting, a practice that few on the Left or the Right would encourage. A new surge in the number of single parents can only further erode the already-weakened institution of marriage. With the rise of clone single parenthood, the social sanction against bearing a child out of wedlock will be further dampened, even for natural parents.


These are the fairly obvious social consequences of cloning to produce children. Why does the report of the President’s Council on Bioethics fail to mention them? I think the reason is political. Apparently, the commission is eager to separate the cloning debate from our contentious culture war over the family. And the commission probably fears that linking an attack on cloning with a defense of the traditional family will be dismissed as a covertly religious argument. If all this is true, then I think the commission may have made a serious political error. More deeply, I think the relationship between the cloning debate and our other contentious culture-war issues — and the relationship between all these issues and religion — is in need of clarification.

Let me first acknowledge that Human Cloning and Human Dignity does contain a discussion of the negative effects of reproductive cloning on the family and society. Yet even that discussion is framed almost entirely in terms of the psychology of cloning — of its tendency to undermine individual autonomy, identity, and dignity. What’s missing is a disciplined attempt to foresee the effects that cloning can be expected to have on both the rate of single parenthood, and the prevalence of marriage.

Consider the costs of failing to mention the real social effects of cloning. Right now, the common knock on the council’s report is that it doesn’t make an actual argument against reproductive cloning. The commission, and especially its chairman, Leon Kass, stress cloning’s affront to human dignity, thereby putting their trust in “the wisdom of repugnance.” That is, Kass and the commission argue that our felt distaste for cloning is an intimation of the truth about the practice’s intolerable affront to our humanity. Advocates of cloning dismiss the “wisdom of repugnance” idea as mumbo jumbo. As any defender of liberty knows, mere discomfort does not constitute a legitimate or rational reason to restrict someone else’s freedom. In America, without evidence or argument about real social harm, there is no legal or political basis for restricting anything. So by refusing to highlight cloning’s inevitable tendency to increase the rate of single parenthood, the commission has stripped itself of the only sort of argument that has legal or political traction. True, in the matter of cloning we are dealing not simply with the rights of free adults, but with the fate of helpless children. Yet that only makes it more urgent to point to specific social harms.

Not that the Kass commission’s arguments about human dignity and the wisdom of repugnance actually are mumbo jumbo. On the contrary, they are vitally important and deeply true. But we cannot fully understand why they are true until we see how inseparable the issues of dignity and repugnance are from the social effects of cloning. Our feelings of repugnance at unconventional practices are warning signs. Taboos are essentially signals that a social institution is under threat. It is true that repugnance, in and of itself, cannot serve as proof that a given institution ought to be protected. There was a time when the thought of interracial marriage was deeply disgusting. Nonetheless, segregation was not an institution worth protecting. Stable two parent families, on the other hand, are worth protecting. Part of our repulsion at the idea of cloning is a signal that asexual reproduction puts the two-parent family in jeopardy.


But what about the claim that a defense of the traditional family is merely a religious argument in disguise, and therefore inappropriate for use in the public sphere? To answer that question we need a conception of what a religion is. One way to think about religion is to see it as a system of approbation and repugnance that serves to protect the central institutions of a given society. This same point can be framed in two different kinds of language, either religious or secular. (And either approach, or even both, could be true.) On the one hand, you can believe that God has revealed that which is praiseworthy and that which is abominable, so as to keep his people righteous and holy. On the other hand, you can believe that religion’s practices and prohibitions have come into being as a way of protecting society’s essential institutions. Despite the difference in language and perspective, each of these beliefs is actually making the same basic sociological point.

Let me be clear. Arguments about what God has or hasn’t decreed cannot sway, and should not sway, non-believers. Yet advocates of innovations like reproductive cloning often dismiss even secular arguments about the importance of the traditional family, or human dignity, as somehow secretly religious. Supposedly, the mere resemblance of these secular arguments to religious injunctions proves that the arguments are invalid for all non-believers. That is nonsense. A thoughtful skeptic would see the matter in reverse. If religious folk believe that God has forbidden a particular practice, then they must believe it because that practice really does undermine a critical social function. Religion itself is a social institution. So if you’re truly a skeptic, you need to provide a secular explanation of why a given society’s religious beliefs have taken a particular form in the first place.

When the pope says that any sexual relations not directed toward reproduction within the context of marriage tend to threaten the structure of the traditional family, he is absolutely right. It is not necessary to be Catholic — or religious — to grant the acuity of the pope’s sociological insight. In fact, it is not even necessary to agree with the pope about the need to forbid non-reproductive and non-marital sexual relations to see the validity of the connection he is making. The truth is, a whole series of non-marital or non-reproductive practices that have gained social approval over the last thirty years — from birth control, to abortion, to premarital sex, to homosexuality — have in fact helped to undermine the structure of the traditional family. That is true, whether or not you are religious, and whether you think these developments have been positive or not.

There are three basic reactions to the sociological truths about the family and sexuality uttered by the pope. (Since I myself am neither Catholic nor religious, I will describe the three reactions in secular language. Yet the same points could be made in religious terms.) On the one hand, the feeling of distaste for sexual-reproductive practices that undermine the traditional family can remain wholly in place, as it does for the traditionally religious. On the other hand, the social taboo on these practices can collapse almost completely, as it has for some libertarians, and for some radical gay thinkers as well. But it is also possible for the taboo on non-traditional sexual and reproductive practices to weaken, yet remain partially in place, as it has for many (maybe most) Americans.

Every time some proposed sexual-reproductive innovation arouses our discomfort or distaste, it is a sign that yet another support beam is about to be pulled out from the structure of the traditional family. Nonetheless, for the middle group, in whom the old taboos are present, yet no longer fully in place, the mere feeling of repugnance cannot, by itself, decide the issue. But that feeling of discomfort can serve as a signal that there are real social costs to the change in question — costs that must be weighed against the benefits. From this “middle ground” frame of reference, it is entirely possible to decide that, say, birth control is worth what it costs in family stability, while reproductive cloning is not.

Yet by confining itself to repugnance alone — by declining to connect the feelings of indignity that cloning arouses with the concrete and calculable social harms that these feelings point to — the President’s Council on Bioethics has short-circuited its own argument, thereby rendering informed prudential calculation impossible.


Getting down to cases, the omission of the single-parenting issue leaves cloning opponents vulnerable to emotionally powerful arguments made by, say, parents who want to clone because one of them is carrying a debilitating genetic disease, or a grieving couple who want to replace a dead child. The goods at stake in such cases are real, if far from unmixed. (Why burden a child with the sense that he has to replicate his dead sibling?) Yet these goods are also exceedingly rare. Isolated advantages like this are easily overbalanced by the larger harm to society as a whole from an upsurge in single parenting. But to show this, family structure needs to be invoked.

Given the very real difficulties of linking the cloning debate to our culture war over the family, I cannot deny that the commission may be right to avoid the single-parent issue. Yet in the years since the Murphy Brown flap, things have changed. Ever since Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s famous “Dan Quayle Was Right” article, a rough consensus has emerged, on both sides of the political aisle, that marriage really does have advantages over single parenthood. Reproductive cloning, by actually encouraging single parenthood on a mass scale, flies directly in the face of that consensus. I cannot think of a greater threat to all that the public still values in the traditional ethos of marriage and family than reproductive cloning.

Maybe, even without telling the whole truth about the harm that reproductive cloning will work upon the family, the President’s Commission on Bioethics will be able to obtain a ban. On the other hand, maybe it won’t. In any case, if the safety issues are resolved, the debate will flare again. Two weeks ago, Washington Post pundit Richard Cohen published a defense of reproductive cloning, while in the New York Times, Philip Boffey offered a skeptical survey of the existing arguments against reproductive cloning.

Here, then, is the more complete argument: You don’t have to be religious, or even very conservative, to recognize that two parents raising a child are better than one. Reproductive cloning will encourage a major expansion of single-parent families, while offering (very mixed) benefits to only a small percentage of traditional couples. In short, cloning to produce children is a dangerous idea.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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