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The Issues

Carbon Copies

Neill Furr examines the various arguments against human cloning and finds them all flawed. He says we should proceed with caution, but doesn’t think cloning should be banned.

As I write this, at least three human clones have been claimed to be born. Already the claims have been variously dismissed and almost universally condemned. But what is wrong with cloning? Why should the world’s leaders be calling for bans and moratoriums? Why have the papers been full of moral disgust?

To begin we should distinguish between two types of cloning: reproductive and non-reproductive. Most of the moral objections to this kind of research have been targeted at reproductive cloning but both have come under the moral spotlight and there is the risk of both being banned in the US.

With non-reproductive cloning the aim is not to create a baby but a source of useful stem cells, an end achieved by allowing cell division until there is a small ball of about one hundred cells called a blastocyst. These stem cells can then be used to culture new tissue (and potentially organs) that is genetically identical with the recipient, eliminating the risk of rejection and the shortage of donors. This type of cloning is often distinguished from reproductive cloning by researchers as therapeutic cloning. But this title is often claimed by those aiming at reproductive cloning, on the grounds that it can be the only means for some people to have children that are genetically theirs. The definition of therapy is sufficiently ambiguous to accommodate both uses of the word and so I shall not employ it to draw any distinctions.

Arguments Against Human Cloning

The arguments fall into three groups: those against nonreproductive cloning, those against reproductive cloning, and those against any form of cloning.

The first argument comes from the pro-life lobby. In short, it points out that non-reproductive cloning requires abortions, which they deem wrong. The more wrong in their eyes because here life is created specifically for the purpose of destroying it and then cannibalizing it, essentially for spare parts. This objection, then, relies on an essentially religious conviction that human life is inherently sacred even at this incredibly basic stage of development. But religious views are intensely personal and it would be wrong to impose them on others through legislation. This is why in the U.S., for instance, there is a constitutional separation between church and state (although this could change under George Bush).

To oppose abortion does not commit us to opposing reproductive cloning. The most common argument that opposes both is the claim that it is unnatural. My heart sinks when I hear it and I hear it everywhere: in the media, from politicians, from friends, people at work or people just talking on the train. It is an old bugbear that will not go away. Without wanting to spend much time on this, I’ll summarise by pointing out that it begs the question: what is it about unnatural that entails wrongness? I see nothing and have yet to hear anyone offer an answer.

Then there is the argument that cloning is offensive to many people, that the law should reflect the sensibilities of society and, therefore, that cloning should be outlawed. This rests on a complex issue. If we believe moral value to be absolute, that is, non-relative, then the objection falls easily. The law should reflect what is right, which may or may not be what people feel is right. After all, most people once felt it acceptable to own and trade in human slaves. If we want to keep this objection then we must commit ourselves to moral relativism. But once this is done, the claim of what the law should reflect loses its prescriptive weight as it must itself be relative.

It is possible for both partners in a relationship to be infertile. In this instance, if they wish to have a child that is genetically one of theirs, then cloning will be the only option. But this will be very rare, as for most couples it will be possible for one partner to be the genetic parent with a donor supplying the other material from an egg or sperm. For such a couple to resort to cloning suggests vanity as a motive; why must the child be genetically one parent’s but not the other’s? Would this constitute a bad motive for having a child? If valuing a child morally, or at least appropriately, requires that she be valued for herself, irrespective of the particular person she happened to be, then there may be a problem. If the motive for having the child was vanity then she will be valued for who she is expected to be, which could get in the way of valuing her for who she actually is. This problem also arises from a couple seeking to replace loss; one of Clonaid’s expectant mothers is supposed to be carrying a clone of her deceased infant. But both of these motives are found in couples who have children normally and where the parents do not adjust their expectations over time, the children do often suffer for this. There are other bad reasons for having children; to save a relationship that is obviously doomed, to force a relationship to continue, and even (although I would stress that this is only a tiny proportion of those in need – despite the press) for state benefits. These are all bad reasons for having children by any method and the children can suffer for them, but we do not ban having children for them and I don’t think that our reasons lie in the unenforceability of such a ban. But could we defend such a ban? Perhaps not, but we could refuse to assist in having children for bad reasons and legislate against giving technical assistance. This would always be difficult to enforce because it will be difficult to judge if a couple is acting for a bad reason.

The next objection is not an objection to the principle of human cloning but to its practice with current technology. The argument is that cloning involves the risk of genetic illnesses for the clone, so we should at least wait until the technology is perfected before trying to use it; if we do not, then we are inflicting these problems on the child. As it stands, the argument assumes that the clone we can make now will be one and the same person as the one we could make in ten years. But this is not the case. Imagine that I could make clone Alex this year, with all the risk that entails, or I could make clone Alexander in ten years when the technology is perfected. The problem is that I could make Alex this year and Alexander in ten years; given that both clones could simultaneously exist they will no more be one and the same person than any pair of identical twins are.

A related objection to this, often taken to be the same, is that creating a clone with these risks is irresponsible. If to be irresponsible is to fail to meet responsibilities, how does this claim apply? What responsibilities are we failing to meet? We are not inflicting harm on Alex as, if Alex is to exist at all, he can only exist with the given risks. The risks are a condition for his existence and not something that we add to it. But there is another direction from which to approach this. When we have children, we are creating beings with needs, needs that few of us can meet alone (how many of us can afford private education and healthcare for our children?) These needs entail duties for the rest of society. In Alex’s case, we are intentionally creating a person who will have needs over and above those of a normal, healthy person – and these needs translate to additional duties for the rest of us in society. Could we have a duty not to encumber others with duties, at least not without consent?

Of course, we do this sort of thing all the time; we take risks by climbing mountains, we smoke cigarettes and eat fast food. Many couples choose to have children in the knowledge that they will or may pass on some genetic condition. Others choose not to abort children with Downs syndrome, in full knowledge that they shall be unable to bring them up without some state assistance. Ought they not do so? Ought they not be allowed? Generally society does not object to these things, so perhaps we could suggest that our consent is implicit. But it cannot be said to be universal, nor have our attitudes always been so. Many people resent the pressures on the National Health Service from smoking and alcoholism and some believe Downs children should not be born. Is it wrong to allow certain types of people to exist? Do we not begin to cost up what these peoples’ lives will mean to us, to quantify their value to society? We must not forget to ask what things we ought to consent to. Whether we want to talk of people being irresponsible or merely inconsiderate, the apparently simple objection hides a hive of complex issues.

Could we then suggest a slippery slope? As cloning becomes more common, it will become more socially acceptable and so still more common – to a point where the human gene pool becomes noticeably reduced, perhaps even dangerously so. This is a possible outcome and it is not enough to retort “That’s ridiculous – I won’t threaten human society by making just one clone of myself.” We can achieve outcomes collectively. No one person in a stoning kills the victim – the participants are collectively responsible for the wrong, else we should say that a person died but was killed by no one. What we actually say, is that they were killed by the mob!

There is no black and white answer to this. It is a possible outcome but by no means is it a certain one. As things are in the west, cloning carries a huge stigma that would take a lot to dissipate. But a greater point is that people prefer having babies the old fashioned way – the fun way – and I don’t see that this will change by cloning becoming familiar. Such a change would surely require a feat of social engineering in addition to the reduction in stigma.

Which brings me to a related objection. The reduction in stigma would pave the way for such intentional social engineering with a view to purposefully reducing the gene pool to traits the state viewed as desirable.

Parallels with the Nazi programme of ‘racial improvement’ come to mind. That too involved desensitization to the elimination of ‘undesirable’ genes. It began with the enforced sterilization of those with physical or mental disabilities and progressed through a gradually escalating programme of persecution to the eventual wholesale murder of the Jewish and Romany peoples. The acceptability of eliminating unwanted characteristics has as its flip side the pursuit of desirable ones (dictated by party doctrine) and voilà! We arrive at state-managed eugenics and a product society.

The objection has the weight of history behind it – but is that enough? Certainly the loss of the stigma against cloning would make life simpler for any future totalitarian state that wanted to mess around with the gene pool, but not making it easy for such a state is not the same as preventing it. If such a state appears in the world, then it will still be able to instigate such a programme itself – it would just take a little longer. Propaganda, in the conditions that make totalitarian states possible, would be more than adequate for the task of softening up the people and any laws previously made are easily overturned.

The answer I would suggest to both of these objections is that we must be vigilant. In the first instance, should cloning become widespread, then the state must step in to limit the practice. In the second instance, we must beware totalitarianism – which we should be doing anyway. This is not a water-tight answer – but then these are not water-tight objections; they are not objections in principle nor are the outcomes they warn us of in any way certain.

The more time I spend thinking about cloning, the less objectionable I find it. I do have reservations regarding motives but the principle entails nothing wrong and the demand is never likely to be all that great – couples will still prefer to have children together, naturally. And when they arrive we must remember that they will be persons, similar to others but not identical. They will be individuals. If we remember this, I don’t think that we will really go far wrong. And if we can allow ourselves some optimism, then clones need not be a threat to diversity but an addition to it.

© J. NEILL FURR 2004

Neill Furr studied philosophy at the Manchester Metropolitan University. He has a particular interest in applied ethics.

Issues: Human Cloning

What is Cloning?

Cloning is the production of a genetically-identical copy of an organism, by replacing the nucleus of an unfertilised egg with the nucleus of a body cell from the organism to be cloned (the ‘donor’). In reproductive cloning this is then implanted in the mother’s womb, where it develops into a baby genetically identical to the donor. In non-reproductive cloning, the altered cell is allowed to divide until it forms a blastocyst, or ball of about 100 embryonic stem cells. Stem cells have the ability to differentiate – to develop into nerve cells, blood cells, heart muscle or brain cells again genetically identical to those of the donor. This could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, heart disease and many other ailments.

Current State of Technology

Sheep, cats and horses have been successfully cloned. The first such success was Dolly the Sheep at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh in 1996. Technical problems remain, including a high failure rate and some (disputed) indications that cloned animals tend to suffer from premature ageing. Many scientists are working with non-reproductive cloning to develop new medicines, but due partly to the widespread legal and ethical objections, few mainstream scientists are openly working on reproductive human cloning so far. Nonetheless, a number of groups have claimed to have succeeded in, or be close to, producing a cloned human baby. These include Clonaid (closely linked to the Raelian cult and so far producing more laughs than verified births), Dr Severino Antinori (a.k.a. ‘the Clone Ranger’) in Italy and a Russian group who offer their services to prospective parents via the internet.

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