Human cloning isn’t as scary as it sounds. The recent news of the successful cloning of an adult sheep, in which the sheep’s DNA was inserted into an unfertilized sheep egg to produce a lamb with identical DNA, has generated an outpouring of ethical concerns. These concerns are not about Dolly, the now-famous sheep, nor even about the considerable impact cloning may have on the animal breeding industry, but rather about the possibility of cloning humans. For the most part, however, the ethical concerns being raised are exaggerated and misplaced because they are based on erroneous views about genes and their capabilities.
The danger, therefore, lies not in the power of the technology, but in the misunderstanding of its significance. Producing a clone of a human being would not amount to creating a carbon copy” or an automaton from science fiction. It would be more like producing a delayed identical twin. Just as identical twins are two separate people biologically, psychologically, morally, and legally, though not genetically, a clone is a separate person from his or her non-contemporaneous twin. To think otherwise is to embrace a belief in genetic determinism, the view that genes determine everything about us, and that environmental factors or the random events in human development are utterly insignificant.
The overwhelming consensus among geneticists is that genetic determinism is false. As geneticists have come to understand the ways in which genes operate, they have also become aware of the myriad ways in which the environment affects their expression. The genetic contribution to the simplest physical traits, such as height and hair color, is significantly mediated by environmental factors. The genetic contribution to the traits we value most deeply, from intelligence to compassion, is conceded by even the most enthusiastic genetic researchers to be limited and indirect. Indeed, we need only appeal to our ordinary experience with identical twins to appreciate that genetic determinism is false.
Furthermore, cloning is likely to be riskier than in vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryo transfer due to the extra steps involved. It took over 275 attempts for researchers to successfully clone a sheep. However, it should be noted that even standard IVF techniques typically have a success rate of less than 20 percent. Despite this, some people may choose to clone for various reasons, and it is important to consider the ethical implications. For example, a couple may want to replace a child who has died and feel that cloning would allow them to reproduce the lost child.
But the unavoidable truth is that they would be producing an entirely different person, a delayed identical twin of that child. Once they understood that, it is unlikely they would persist. But suppose they were to persist? Of course, we can’t deny that possibility. But a couple so persistent in refusing to acknowledge the genetic facts is not likely to be daunted by ethical considerations or legal restrictions either.
If our fear is that there could be many couples with that sort of psychology, then we have a great deal more than cloning to worry about. Another disturbing possibility is the person who wants a clone in order to have acceptable spare parts” in case he or she needs an organ transplant later in life. But regardless of the reason that someone has a clone produced, the result would nevertheless be a human being with all the rights and protections that accompany that status. It would be a disaster if the results of human cloning were seen as less than fully human. However, there is certainly no moral justification for, and little social danger of, that happening. After all, we do not accord lesser status to children who have been created through IVF or embryo transfer. There are other possibilities we could spin out.
Suppose a couple wants a designer child” – a clone of Cindy Crawford or Elizabeth Taylor – because they want a daughter who will grow up to be as attractive as those women. Indeed, someone may want a clone, regardless of who it is, simply to enjoy the notoriety of having one. We cannot rule out such cases.