As human as you and I

A proposed ban on reproductive cloning demonstrates our irrational fear of the unknown, not the vagaries of science.

Published March 12, 2003 8:21PM (EST)

"Images of a divided existence -- of Doppelgangers and Doubles -- become most compelling when family relationships are most upset."

That line from cultural critic Hillel Schwartz comes from his 1994 book, "The Culture of the Copy," but it speaks directly to the current controversy over human cloning. Late last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill that bans human cloning for both reproduction and stem-cell research. So irrational was the panic over cloning that an exception to the cloning bill for stem-cell research was also defeated. The bill is not likely to gather the necessary 60 Senate votes, largely because stem-cell research has many and eloquent defenders. But human reproductive cloning, currently ineligible for government funding, is likely to be banned in the near future.

This prospect, though expected, should not pass unremarked. As Schwartz implies, there is a large irrational element in our feelings about doubles and clones, and I would argue that the severity of the House bill -- those who defy the ban would be liable for a fine of $1 million and up to 10 years in prison -- has more to do with our fears than with public-policy objectives or science.

With its ban on cloning, the House of Representatives is circling the wagons against a phantom army of clones, precisely because the wagons don't protect what they used to. Blended families of exes, halves and steps, same-sex couples, fertility drug twins, adopted children and serial cohabitators constitute a growing precentage of the families we have these days; and while love allows us to accept these new forms of affiliation, an underlying anxiety over their novelty has never disappeared. The past 50 years have brought more changes to the family than the past 500 or even 2,500 years, and to those who perceive these new families as artificial, they are disquieting and, at some deep level, unacceptable. Of course, human history is filled with practices once considered "natural" and now abhorred, like slavery, and with those formerly condemned as "unnatural" and now unquestioned, like the right of women to work and vote.

Even as the media churned out nearly 9,000 articles about the alleged cloning of a baby, announced late last year by the bizarre Raelian sect, most Americans remain vague about what a human clone would be. Several well-educated people of my acquaintance admitted to envisioning a clone as a sort of fully mature homunculus that could be harvested for spare parts. Questions such as "Can a clone have a soul?" are posed with the seriousness of a 13th century Sorbonne debate, heightening the sci-fi imaginings of those -- a majority of us, in fact -- who know nothing of the rather pedestrian procedure followed to clone a human being.

In fact, a clone created with existing technology would be just as human as you and I. Human reproductive cloning (also known as nuclear somatic cloning) involves introducing the cells from the nucleus of a human cell into an egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. It results in an embryo and, if implanted in a woman's womb, a baby. A woman could produce a clone of herself, or of an unrelated man or woman. How the child would look and behave is unknown, just as the appearance and personality of a baby produced in the traditional fashion is unknown. The cat recently cloned by scientists at Texas A&M University (and funded by Genetic Savings and Loan, a commercial venture), does not resemble her mother in appearance or personality, a development attributed, in part, to the impact of the prenatal environment on the fetus -- also a factor in human fetal development.

Cloning for research, unlike reproductive cloning, destroys the embryo to harvest the stem cells. For those who believe that life begins at conception, creating embryos to be destroyed in the course of research is wrong; for the rest of us, it is a way to develop cures for intractable diseases. But, to set the record straight: Reproductive cloning creates an embryo intended to grow into a baby, not an organism from which to harvest specialized tissue for stem cells.

Straightforward as this science tends to be, the misunderstandings about cloning are widespread, and they're sometimes perpetuated by those with a mandate to dispel them. Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, stooped very low indeed in an article he wrote for the New York Times early this year. It's worth examining the piece in detail because Kass uses what he assumes to be popular hostility to human reproductive cloning to attack stem-cell research. (Kass was originally an opponent of in vitro fertilization, too, though he has changed his position.) He argues for the banning of stem-cell research on the grounds that it will lead, via a slippery moral slope, to the cloning of humans.

Kass characterized opposition to human cloning in America as "practically unanimous," describing the cloning of humans "unethical" because it "threatens the dignity of human procreation, giving one generation unprecedented genetic control over the next." In perhaps the most alarmist passage, Kass wrote that human cloning "is the first step toward a eugenic world in which children become objects of manipulation and products of will."

In this moralistic fear mongering, Kass defies logic. If opposition to cloning is "practically unanimous," how would we be in danger of sliding down a slippery slope into his "eugenic world"? Almost everyone who can would still choose to have children the old-fashioned way. At the moment, sperm banks offer far more in the way of eugenic possibilities -- and, interestingly enough, few people with other options seek out the sperm of Nobel Prize winners or other supposedly genetically superior donors, available though it is. It seems that most of us would like to perpetuate in our children the characteristics of our families and the partners we love, not the absolute best genes we can find. Eugenics looks a lot more like an uphill battle than a slippery slope.

And what can Kass mean by speaking of "genetic control"? Here he seems to be encouraging a dangerous leap in the possibilities of a cloning technology that does not exist. He invokes the day when we will be able to make changes in human embryos to bolster his case. But we are a long way from being able to screen for desired characteristics in clones, and when we get there, it will be just as possible for parents who use in vitro fertilization to do genetic screening on the embryos they have created from the usual mix of sperm and egg.

For the foreseeable future, cloned embryos, like embryos produced the old-fashioned way, would be the genetic duplicates of their parents, warts and all. Even if a scientist clones your tissue in a lab, your clone is not going to automatically emerge as a combination of Michael Jordan and Albert Einstein. More likely, he or she will play basketball like Albert Einstein and do math like Michael Jordan, rather like you and me.

Kass' focus on the "dignity of procreation" misses the point: We care about the dignity of the results, the new human life, not about the process, which, however pleasurable, has been known to be less than dignified. And what about procreation by means of the test tube, the lab, the syringe or turkey baster? Is it any more dignified? It is certainly legal -- and widely practiced.

If we listen for the subtext of Kass' jeremiad, we can hear a familiar anxiety about the changing definition and face of the American family. Children as "products of will," for instance: That is a possible description not only of children produced by in vitro fertilization but also of adopted children, and children produced by same-sex couples. Does this mean that the only dignified way of getting pregnant is by mistake, or by never using contraception? Surely that is a notion retired long ago, partly as a result of successful public health education.

Kass' New York Times article, like a great many others that appeared in the wake of the Raelians' wild (and unproven) claim, falls to the cult group's level of discourse on the subject, above all in its overestimation of our technological possibilities. The Raelians even spoke of cloning as a step on the path to human immortality, with an individual's memories being somehow uploaded to the clone.

When we consider human cloning more calmly, on a case-by-case basis, it looks much less threatening. For some single women, lesbian couples and heterosexual couples, cloning would represent their only option for having a biologically related child. No, I am not prepared to argue that human cloning is a necessary scientific activity. Clearly there are more urgent concerns. But as a libertarian, I would argue that activities that have not been proved to be harmful should be extended the benefit of the doubt.

Banning a practice is a last resort, not the first. Some people might feel abhorrence at the prospect of being cloned, but why does this give them the right to prevent those who seek the procedure? You or I might find plastic surgery unpalatable, but does that mean we should ban it? The human right to reproduce and form families transcends the right of society to regulate science. This is, of course, an opinion, but it is in the spirit of the conservatism that many cloning opponents purport to represent.

History has shown that scientific advances often have unanticipated positive, as well as negative, outcomes. It is tough to predict just how a technology will eventually be used. No one expected the Internet, for instance, to become accessible to most households. No one expected laser eye surgery to become a mass-market outpatient procedure. Animal cloning is already being investigated for a fascinating new use: bringing endangered species back from the edge of extinction.

Closing the door on potentially helpful scientific developments is an extreme reaction, and one that has sometimes quickly proved misguided. The United States originally banned in vitro fertilization technologies when they were developed in the late 1970s. Politicians then realized that the procedure was unthreatening, and American scientists had to spend the next several years catching up with their foreign competitors. In fact, when the National Bioethics Advisory Council first deliberated on regulating cloning, it called for a voluntary ban on reproductive cloning combined with a reconsideration of the issue in a designated period of time. This is much more sensible than what the House just enacted.

A final reason that a ban on human cloning would be a terrible idea, quite apart from libertarian considerations, is that it is doomed to fail. Many in the scientific community believe that cloned human children will be born, probably sooner than later, whether we like it or not. Dr. Robert Edwards, the scientist behind the first "test tube baby" in 1978; Dr. Patrick Dixon, a futurist; Dr. Mark Sauer, Columbia University's in vitro fertilization expert; Dr. Rudolph Jaenisch, a Whitehead Institute cloning pioneer; and Steen Willadsen, the first scientist to clone mammals from embryos -- all are among the many scientists who have gone on the record as saying that human cloning is imminent if it has not, in fact, already taken place quietly.

Despite the belief among laymen that the process is mysterious and complex, the key to human cloning at this point is not undiscovered scientific knowledge or technique but sheer persistence. As Edwards told Glasgow's Sunday Herald last year, "Cloning an embryo is not difficult. An ordinary fertility clinic would not find it difficult. They could extract the nucleus of an egg and produce an embryo within a day or two."

Most early attempts at cloning will likely end in miscarriage, and the human suffering resulting from these losses is at the center of arguments most frequently advanced by scientists who seek either a ban or a slowdown in cloning research. But the same risks were originally associated with in vitro fertilization, which had an initial success rate of just 5 percent. Now it is 20 to 30 percent. While no one who has other possibilities for making a baby chooses in vitro fertilization, thousands of couples have accepted the risks, discomfort and substantial cost of the procedure.

Cloning would likely be the choice of just a tiny minority of individuals seeking to reproduce, but as long as it is a possibility, it is unlikely that a ban will keep some researchers from attempting it. To paraphrase the gun lobby bumper sticker, if cloning is outlawed, only outlaws will have clones. Currently, human reproduction cloning is prohibited only in Australia, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan. But if the move to ban cloning worldwide gains momentum, as suggested by the United Nations' 2001 nonbinding resolution, the research will move to less regulated, typically less advanced settings where the likelihood of medical misadventure is much greater. Only fringe groups with little to lose would pursue cloning, since no responsible scientist would risk his or her career to defy the ban. So we can assume that the work will be done by unqualified scientific dabblers, which is not what we want.

Instead of banning cloning, we should be gathering the best scientific minds to decide how to properly regulate it. This would probably involve an emphasis on research to improve the survival rate of implanted cloned embryos in animals before attempting human pregnancies. We should also take a clearer look at the philosophical place clones would occupy in our society.

Throughout the history of Western philosophy, human identity has been located in the possession of a unique consciousness and memory, not in unique physiognomy. Your clone would not have the same experiences as you, and so neither the same memories nor the same identity. This is not a question of nature versus nurture, but of epistemology. This is why we view identical twins as separate individuals. This is why doing plastic surgery on someone to make him identical to another person would still result in two different people. (Films have often been the place where these issues have been most imaginatively explored -- think about "Blade Runner" and, for the last-named possibility, "Face Off.")

Somehow we have allowed our panic over cloning -- or is it our fear of unconventional families and relationships created by "will"? -- to obscure the fact that human cloning would also represent one of the most important moments in human history. The moment when the first human clone is born would be historically, and somewhat ominously for our clones, on a plane with the first encounters of Europeans with native Americans. And the judgment of history will be upon us for the way we treat them. If we are destined, as scientists say, to find clones in our midst, will the same fears and prejudices that cause us to reject the technology move us to reject the children who come of it? The real challenge posed by cloning may be to our most basic ability of all, the ability to accept and love others -- and their otherness.

By Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe is the author of "How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z" and "The Book of Trouble," published last month.

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