essays

Apr 1, 1978

Cloning: Menace or Promise?

“Let us proceed with a high heart, undeterred by obscurantists—from whatever end of the political spectrum—who are eager to place shackles on man’s mind.”

The science writer David Rorvik has written a just-published book claiming that an American millionaire has secretly managed to clone himself and produce a small boy, now 16 months old and well. Scientists claim that the technology for cloning humans is not yet available, and Rorvik says he is sworn to secrecy in naming the millionaire, the boy, or the scientists who performed the feat, in order to protect the privacy of all concerned.

Whoever is right on the facts, there is no doubt that cloning humans will eventually be feasible, that possibility raises important moral and political issues. Already, in response to the news of the Rorvik book, several scientists have sued the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act to try to force disclosure of what research the government has sponsored in this area. The statements issued by the scientists indicate that they are critical of the whole idea. Thus, Harvard genetics professor Jonathan Beckwith refers sweepingly to “medical ‘advances’ which allow meddling in the human gene pool.” And, as MIT genetics professor Ethan Singer puts it: “What are the rights of cloned individuals? What are the ethical and moral aspects of cloning humans? Who has the right to clone?”

We can expect, in fact, severe opposition to cloning from both ends of the political spectrum. Liberals, who used to be in favor of scientific advance, now tend to be opposed to it for fear of technocratic control of individuals. And conservatives may be expected to raise the cry that cloning is tampering with God’s gene pool and God’s control over the reproductive process.

To put the problem in perspective, we must first point out what cloning is not. Cloning is not what we see in sci-fi movies, in which a new person is created whole with the identical memory and personality of the person being cloned. Cloning is essentially the creation of a new baby which will be an identical twin of the adult being cloned. In short, if John Doakes (or Jane Doakes) is cloned, Doakes Jr. will be a baby with the same genes as his father (or mother), and thus will be an identical twin of someone of the previous generation.

Putting the point this way should show how the question of rights can be resolved. Who should have the right to clone? Whoever has the right to have a baby by orthodox means: i.e. everyone. What should be the rights of a clone? The same as every other baby. The parents should have no more right to enslave a cloned baby than they have to enslave a baby now. Similarly, parents should have no less right to bring up a cloned baby than parents have to bring up a baby now. If John Doakes in some way created a cloned Doakes Jr., then so did he create (or half-create) the non-cloned Doakes offspring in the world now.

If the man is the one cloned, will the mother’s role be different—though still essential—since only the father’s genes will be passed on to the child? Why should this alteration of circumstance affect the roles or the rights of parents or children? After all, we have families with adopted children now where no genes are passed from parents to child, and yet the legal and moral status of all family members remains precisely the same. We should also realize that the clone will in no sense be a puppet of his creator; the clone will be as fully human a baby, as endowed with the freedom to choose and develop, as any baby is today.

The lesson here is that we should stop being so afraid of science: We should recapture the optimism with which earlier decades greeted technological advances. But we should always guard against any abuse of civil liberties whether using primitive or advanced technology. The human race could not have achieved its millenial climb upward from the cave man to civilization and high living standards for hundreds of millions without the aid of science and technology. To say that we must not tamper with God’s gene pool is as sensible as saying that airplanes are evil because if God wanted us to fly he would have given us wings. Every time that men and women mate and produce children they are engaging in their own kind of “genetic engineering,” by deciding which individuals they will attempt to mix their genes with. Cloning and other scientific advances will allow individuals to choose freely and determine their fates with far more knowledge and precision. Probably few mongoloids and hemophiliacs, and more geniuses, will be produced in the future. Is this such a terrible fate?

Mankind has accomplished its remarkable upward climb by using its reason to find out more and more about how the world works. Let us proceed with a high heart, undeterred by obscurantists—from whatever end of the political spectrum—who are eager to place shackles on man’s mind.—MNR