Human Reproductive Cloning: Assessing the Concerns

Timothy Caulfield. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Few scientific techniques have caused as much social controversy as the prospect of human cloning. Though the idea of cloning has been part of popular culture for decades, the international interest in cloning was sparked in 1997 with the birth of Dolly, the first successfully cloned mammal. Dolly was a sheep created at Scotland’s Roslin Institute by a research team led by Ian Wilmut. Since her birth, the international community has struggled with the ethical issues associated with human cloning. Many countries have passed laws, and others, such as my country, Canada, are in the midst of developing cloning policies. At the international level, the United Nations has considered a cloning treaty that would ban all reproductive cloning. But why is cloning viewed as so repugnant? Is cloning always morally wrong? And if so, why?

The Science of Cloning

The clone Dolly was created with a procedure called somatic cell nuclear transfer. A cell was taken from an adult sheep. The nucleus from that cell was removed and placed in an egg that was harvested from another adult female sheep. The egg was then stimulated with a mild electric shock, which started its development into an embryo. The embryo was implanted in another female sheep and allowed to mature. Because a nucleus contains almost all of an individual’s genetic information, the resultant sheep, Dolly, was an almost complete genetic copy of the source.

Though much of the international debate has focused on human reproductive cloning, Ian Wilmut and his team did not create Dolly in order to facilitate the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer in humans. The cloning technique was developed to allow the creation of animals for medical and research purposes. Because cloning creates a near genetic copy of the source animal, this allows researchers to design animals that have characteristics useful for research or other purposes. For example, researchers could create a goat that produces pharmaceuticals in its milk. Or they could design a pig that could be a source of organs for humans seeking transplantation, an area of research known as xenotransplantation.

Since Dolly was born, many other animals have been cloned, including a cat, rabbit, and horse. But no primate of any kind has been successfully cloned using the Dolly technique. Scientists are unclear why some animals are easier to clone than others. At the current time, however, it appears that primate embryos created through cloning are incapable of developing normally. There may be a biological roadblock stopping the cloning of humans.

Nevertheless, a number of individuals and organizations have claimed they cloned a human. On December 27, 2003, representatives from Clonaid, an organization associated with a religious movement called the Raelians, announced that they had successfully created the first human clone. This announcement made headlines around the world and motivated national and international policy makers to consider laws and treaties that address human reproductive cloning. Since the Clonaid announcement, there have been a number of other cloning controversies. For example, on January 17, 2004, Panos Zavos, a Kentucky fertility specialist, announced that he had successfully implanted a cloned embryo into a thirty-five-year-old woman. Given the available scientific data from animal studies and the fact that no real evidence has been produced to verify the existence of a human clone, such claims should be met with a high degree of skepticism.

One of the reasons policy making in the area is so challenging is that somatic cell nuclear transfer can have therapeutic potential. In a process called both “therapeutic cloning” and “research cloning,” the Dolly technique would be used to grow human tissue for transplantation. Many scientists believe it has great potential. It is hoped that the process could be used to grow tissue to cure individuals with diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s. However, because the process involves the use of the cloning process and requires the creation and destruction of an embryo, it remains highly controversial.

What Is a Clone?

The popular media often portray a clone as an exact copy of the source, with an identical personality and physical appearance. Indeed, clones are often depicted as being the same age and having the same memories as the person who was cloned. From Homer on The Simpsons to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie The Sixth Day, clones are consistently represented as exact duplicates or, in the case of Michael Keaton in the movie Multiplicity, a degraded carbon copy of the original.

You could think of a clone and the source person as identical twins separated in time. But a clone and the source are less genetically similar than identical twins. A small portion of our DNA resides outside the cell nucleus, in the mitochondria, and this genetic material is not passed on when an embryo is created using somatic cell nuclear transfer. Also, unlike identical twins, a clone would mature in a different in utero environment than its source did. That is, the clone would have a different gestational mother from the individual being cloned. And, of course, the clone would, as Duff writes, “come into the world as newborn and would move through the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence and so on, like everyone else.” The clone would be raised, fed, and educated in a social environment different from the source’s. All of these factors are highly relevant to how we develop as individuals, so it is fair to say that a clone would be a wholly unique person.

However, because a clone has almost the exact same genes as the source, there will be many similarities between the two individuals. For example, superficial traits in which genetics play a large role, such as height and basic physical characteristics, will be very similar. And, as with identical twins, there are likely to be some similarities in basic temperament.

Cloning Concerns

A few vocal individuals have explicitly supported the idea of human cloning, but the public reaction to human cloning has been fairly consistent. Most of the public is strongly against the idea. For example, a 2002 Gallup poll of 1,012 Americans found that 90 percent thought cloning an entire human is morally wrong. Similarly, a 2001 poll found that 88 percent disapprove of “cloning that is designed specifically to result in the birth of a human being.” A 2002 survey done by the Genetics and Public Policy Center, a Johns Hopkins effort funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that 76 percent of Americans oppose scientific research on reproductive cloning. Survey research from other countries has found a similar response. For example, a poll of 1,500 Canadians taken shortly after the Raelians had claimed that the first human clone was born found that 84 percent of those surveyed were against human cloning.

Why has cloning caused so much social controversy? One area of concern where there is almost universal agreement is that human cloning is, at the current time, tremendously risky. Somatic cell nuclear transfer remains a very inefficient and highly unsafe way to reproduce. Experience with animals has shown that the cloning process often results in premature births, severe birth defects, and a host of ailments that often lead to early death. Indeed, Dolly died at the premature age of six. While not definitively traceable to the cloning process, her death again highlighted the possible health risks associated with reproductive cloning. The safety concerns have emerged as a primary justification for not allowing human cloning to proceed.

There is, however, less clarity about many of the other concerns that have been associated with human reproductive cloning. For example, it has been suggested that cloning is contrary to human dignity. Indeed, this concern has been articulated in numerous international policy documents. UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights recommends a ban on “practices that are contrary to human dignity, such as reproductive cloning.” Similarly, in 1998, the World Health Organization reaffirmed that “cloning for the replication of human individuals is ethically unacceptable and contrary to human dignity and integrity.”

But the specific ways in which dignity might be challenged by human cloning are rarely, if ever, articulated in formal policy. For many, the concern is that cloning will compromise the clone’s autonomy, that is, the clone’s right of self-determination. Individual autonomy is generally believed to be a central element of human dignity. This is an understandable concern. Because our genes are such a significant factor in our development as individuals, having all our genes predetermined by the cloning process would seem to challenge the clone’s future life choices. However, genes are far from the only factor relevant to our development.

Our genes do not bind our future life decisions, and to believe otherwise is to buy into the scientifically inaccurate idea of “genetic determinism.” Many commentators are suspicious of claims that cloning has an adverse impact on autonomy. As summarized by philosopher Bonnie Steinbock, the objections that cloning is a threat to autonomy and individuality are “based on a fallacious assumption: that if you know what your genome is, you will know what your choices, and hence your life, will be … To put it bluntly, we are not our genes, and our genes do not determine what we are or will be.”

The process of cloning may not, on its own, infringe autonomy, but individuals may wish to use cloning in a manner that does. For instance, it is possible that reproductive cloning may be used for the purpose of creating an individual for a particular life role. Let’s use a very speculative example to illustrate how this might happen. If a group developed a program to clone individuals well suited for military service, and their life choices were restricted by the program, this would amount to a restriction on the clones’ autonomy.

Similarly, if a clone were expected to be like the source individual, that might place an unhealthy psychological burden on the clone. For example, if a couple sought to clone a star basketball player in the hope of having a child who would become a wealthy professional athlete, the parental expectations could greatly influence how that child develops and the decisions the child makes. In such a circumstance, the clone’s autonomy may be compromised in a subtle manner. The clone may, for instance, feel pressure to become a basketball player even though he or she would prefer to study cello.

The psychological burden of being a clone was viewed as an important consideration in the 1997 National Bioethics Advisory Commission report Cloning Human Beings and the 2002 President’s Council on Bioethics report Human Cloning and Human Dignity. The latter committee concluded that what “matters is the cloned individual’s perception of the significance of the ‘precedent life’ and the way that perception cramps and limits a sense of self and independence.” However, it is the pressure or social expectations placed on the individual clone that challenges the clone’s autonomy, not the actual process of reproductive cloning. And, of course, these kinds of parental expectations are not unique to the cloning context. Parents who procreate the natural way may also place burdensome expectations on their children.

Some commentators have noted that cloning may simply be used as a reproductive technology with the sole motivation of having a biologically related offspring. Though somatic cell nuclear transfer is currently dangerous and inefficient, it is theoretically possible that cloning could be used as a way to help infertile couples and individuals have children. It might also be used as a way for some same-sex couples to have children without involving a third-party donation of sperm or an egg. If cloning were used in this context, the concerns related to autonomy and dignity seem less severe. As suggested by Steven Malby: “From the point of view of dignity, the desire to treat infertility clearly does not violate any of the parameters associated with an objective perspective of dignity.”

There are many other social and ethical concerns about human cloning that reach beyond autonomy and dignity. Some of these concerns focus on the asexual nature of the cloning process. For a number of commentators, the ability to create an individual asexually will have an adverse impact on the role and social definition of family. As one Christian scholar, Albert Mohler, argues: “Modernity’s assault on the family would thus be complete with the development of cloning. Already stripped of its social function, the family would now be rendered biologically unnecessary, if not irrelevant.” In addition, because cloning can be done outside of a sexual relationship, there is a concern that it would lead to a loss in the intangible benefits associated with the natural procreation process. Gilbert Meilaender puts the concern this way: “It is, in fact, hard to imagine human life without sexual reproduction. Sexuality brings with it a certain kind of relationship to the world. It leads us to look out at the world in search of an ‘other’ who is both like us and different from us.”

Of course, many issues are closely associated with a particular worldview or religious perspective, such as the social value and role of the traditional family structure. One study by Sussman found that, for Americans, religious beliefs had the most influence on their opinion regarding the appropriateness of cloning. The study by the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins found that those who view these technologies in terms of religion and morality are more likely to have disapproving views. While religious perspectives obviously play an important role in framing the public perceptions of cloning, not all religions approach cloning with the same level of concern. To cite one example from Evans’s work, it has been noted that for some within the Islamic community, reproductive cloning may be permissible so long as it is used to help infertility and occurs within a “lawful male-female relationship.” Such a position contrasts sharply with the more well-known position of the Roman Catholic Church, which objects to all reproduction that does not involve sexual intercourse between a husband and wife.

Most Western societies have become tremendously culturally diverse and increasingly tolerant of a wide range of family structures and modes of reproduction. Single-parent families, sperm and egg donation, and the use of reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization are now commonplace, although all were once viewed with a degree of social concern. In some American states, there were once calls to criminally ban sperm donation, and many feared that “test tube” babies, those individuals born through the use of in vitro fertilization, would be socially stigmatized. Now both practices are widely accepted and are used as a means of treating infertile couples the world over. Indeed, since the birth of the first “test tube baby” in 1979, in vitro fertilization has been responsible for over 100,000 babies in the United States alone. Could the same social accommodation happen with human cloning? At a minimum, the changing nature of social attitudes should remind us to question our reaction to new technologies. Is our intuitive response based on a lack of familiarity or on ethical concerns that may have enduring relevance?

Some of the concerns associated with human cloning are very speculative. It has been suggested by Bronskill and others that cloning could be used to create an army of “manufactured” soldiers. This hardly seems a realistic or pressing concern. Somatic cell nuclear transfer would require an army of women to carry the cloned embryos to term, and then there would be an army of infants to be fed and raised. Such an approach is far from an efficient way to create an army.

Another speculative concern, one that is theoretically possible, is to use somatic cell nuclear transfer to steal someone’s genome. If a couple wanted a child with a specific individual’s superficial physical traits—say a movie star or a professional athlete—all you would need is a cell from that athlete or actor with an intact nucleus. You could then use that cell to create a clone of the individual. Of course, given the technical barriers and inefficiencies associated with somatic cell nuclear transfer, the use of reproductive cloning in this controversial manner is far from an immediate policy dilemma.

The Challenge of Making Laws

Many countries around the world have laws banning reproductive cloning. In a number of these countries, the laws were already in place prior to the birth of Dolly. For example, Ireland and Austria have long had strict rules governing research involving human embryos. These laws, which reflect a particular position regarding the moral status of the embryo, effectively stop cloning research. In other countries, such as Australia and the Netherlands, specific laws were introduced to ban reproductive cloning. In Canada, a similar law is being considered.

In the United States, despite a good deal of political debate, there is no federal law related specifically to human reproductive cloning. To a large degree, this is due to a lack of agreement on what would be the appropriate breadth of a cloning ban. Some politicians have suggested that only reproductive cloning should be banned and that research cloning should be permitted, though closely regulated. Others have argued that all forms of cloning should be banned. Senator Sam Brownback, for instance, has suggested: “There’s only one type of human cloning and it always results in the creation of a human being.” Given this profound lack of moral consensus, the President’s Council on Bioethics suggested that a ban on all forms of cloning was not appropriate at the current time.

This lack of consensus on how to handle research cloning has also stymied attempts at the United Nations to create an international cloning treaty. Two proposals have been considered. One would outlaw both reproductive and research cloning. The other would leave room for individual countries to decide how to proceed on the issue of research cloning.

In the end, human reproductive cloning may never have practical use. The health and safety issues are profound and seem likely to endure for decades. This gives policy makers throughout the world a sound and noncontroversial justification for banning the technique. And even if reproductive cloning were safe, it seems likely to remain a highly inefficient way to reproduce. Most couples would prefer to reproduce the old-fashioned way, if possible. Nevertheless, human cloning forces us to confront many profound ethical questions. What role do genes play in our individuality? Should parents be allowed to predetermine the genetic makeup of their children? Is the intuitive reaction against human cloning justified? There remains surprisingly little consensus about the answers to these questions.