The Rush to Clone

The international team of Panayiotis Zavos, of the University of Kentucky, and Servino Antinori of Rome, Italy, and a group called the Raelians, who think humans were made by aliens using genetic technologies, have both announced that they are moving forward on the human cloning project. The Raelians will attempt to clone DNA from the deceased child of an American couple, and the international team has promised to clone a human within a year.

For several years I have been predicting that the first place that human cloning would be done would be in an assisted reproduction clinic. The reasons are simple: such clinics are in the main unregulated—though four states prohibit human cloning; they have customers who are desperate to have a child with some genetic link to at least one partner; money does not seem to be an obstacle; and, when all other methods have failed, here is one last method to try.


I had assumed, however, that this would be done quietly and with a certain degree of discretion so as not to incite picketing at the clinic or professional disapproval. Little did I think that a major actor would be the Raelians (a group you can join if you send in a check for 3 percent of your post-tax income) and the international team. Nor did I foresee that the project would be announced with a great deal of fanfare. Hence the rekindled cloning debate with much media attention.

But this announcement has recently been complicated by reports from several scientists that cloned animals are beginning to manifest problems such as obesity, errors in the expression of the genes and developmental delay. The problems seem to be associated with the rapidity with which the clone is required to reprogram the genetic material, but the cause is not clear yet. What is clear is that there are problems and that some show up rather quickly, while others become apparent only later.

Although the technology of cloning has resulted in some clones, the argument that the technology works is facetious at best. Only a few clones have actually been produced, and a minimal number of these have been primates. Hundreds of embryos need to be produced to have a very few live births. Many clones do not survive or have to be euthanized because of various physical problems. Even after years of dedicated work and research, the Texas A&M facility has not succeeded in cloning Missy, a beloved dog whose owners generously funded the cloning project there. If this rush to application were done in any other area of medicine, I suspect the medical and scientific community, to say nothing of the federal government and consumer activist groups, would rise as one in protest at such improper scientific methods. Think of recent debates over drug trials. That such an unproved and unsafe method of assisted reproduction is being rushed to human use is simply wrong both scientifically and ethically.

There are, however, several interrelated reasons why this project seems to be going forward. First, in this country autonomy has come to mean that I am entitled to do whatever I want. This is a variant of what Robert Bellah and his colleagues called “expressive individualism,” the right to be who one wants to be and to seek those acts that both make me who I choose to be and that also express that self. This self stands apart from community and essentially knows no limits—except those imposed by one’s imagination and credit line. This model of autonomy serves the cloning debate well by isolating any evaluation of desires and motives or of scientific efficacy from public debate.

Thus in the Raelian clinic, the DNA comes from a deceased child. How can others understand the parents’ loss or their need or refuse them this last opportunity to see that particular configuration of DNA expressed? Others have expressed interest in cloning a parent or, a recurring theme, having a clone from which to harvest organs or perhaps bone marrow or stem cells. In this latter case it is important to note that two critical precedents have been set. In England, human cloning is permitted to obtain stem cells, with the proviso that the embryo will be terminated after two weeks. Additionally, in this country there have been two well-discussed cases of individuals using various assisted reproduction technologies to conceive children to use as bone marrow donors. Objections were rebuffed in the name of privacy and autonomy. The cloners will probably follow the same strategy.

Second, money counts. Assisted reproduction is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Funding is mainly private, though insurance will provide for some treatments. But in general, if one has the money up front, one can enter the clinic. Since the federal government does not at present subsidize cloning, monies will come from private individuals, private agencies or organizations like the Raelians. It would be better, I think, to have the federal government support research into cloning so that at least an institutional review board and/or some government agency would review it. Even modest oversight is better than none, especially with regard to safety issues.

Third, there are many infertile couples, as well as many gay and lesbian couples, who desire a child with a genetic link to one of the partners. For many of these people the current technologies have not worked. Or donor gametes are unacceptable because of the consequent genetic asymmetry between the partners. With cloning there is asymmetry, but it is from within the relation. If one is desperate for a child and all traditional attempts have failed, there is now one more option: cloning. With cloning, desperation joins up with the drive for progress, as well as for fame and fortune. And in a culture in which failure to use available technologies, no matter how risky, is equivalent to moral failure, eliminating this one last chance for a child with a genetic relation to one partner would be considered problematic, if not immoral.

Even though most people recognize that the clone is not the same person as the original, talk of replacement for a deceased child or a deceased parent or for one’s self still continues. People talk of cloning as a form of secular immortality in that their DNA will march onward in a being at least genetically identical to them. One person reportedly said that he knew a clone of his mother would not be her, but he would like to give the clone a chance to experience all the things his mother was not able to experience because she grew up during the Depression. As if a fortune would be available to pursue such lifestyle options after paying for the cloning procedure! Such continuing misperceptions of what cloning will achieve reveal a profound ignorance of its outcome and perhaps of the process itself. How can informed consent be present here?

Finally, one still hears the rhetoric of the clone as a source of spare parts or as a source of renewable parts like blood marrow. Notwithstanding the tragic circumstances that led at least two couples to avail themselves of assisted reproductive techniques to have a child precisely to use the child as a donor, such use reduces the child to a means and violates its dignity. Taking an organ from such a child would not only cause physical harm; it would also be a substantive violation of the child’s integrity. Even if one is thinking of taking a kidney or part of the liver, or even bone marrow, the child is reduced to an object. Some have referred to this as neo-cannibalism, a label that, while perhaps a bit over the top, does make a point.

The critical issue in the present cloning debate is the simple but fundamental issue of research ethics: the research has not been proven effective or safe on animal models; therefore it is unethical to apply it to humans. It is not a violation of anyone’s rights to insist, at the bare minimum, that the technique of cloning ought at least to be demonstrated as effective and safe before we rush into using it. However, in America we act first and think later—if at all. I think we have been and continue to be extremely lucky with the implementation of in vitro fertilization, which was also rushed to market without adequate animal trials. Maybe our luck will hold again, but shouldn’t such decisions have a little more ethical mandate than just luck?

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