(originally published, Nov. 2001)
In 1971, James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, issued a call for a public debate on the ethics of human cloning. With the recent announcement that an international research team of fertility doctors will embark on the world’s first concerted effort to clone a human being, his call is finally being heeded. But as Watson realized, technological advances in cloning and genetic manipulation challenge our most dearly held assumptions. The debate about human cloning is a debate over nothing less than what it means to be human. The science of genetics, realized through technologies such as cloning, will have a tremendous impact on cultural conceptions of human nature. This debate, its implications, and its consequences are likely to be much the same as those that raged over Darwin’s The Origin of the Species more than 140 years ago.
Cloning technology presents humanity with the very real possibility that it may one day control not only its destiny but also its origin. Human cloning allows man to fashion his own essential nature and turn chance into choice. For cloning’s advocates, this is an opportunity to remake mankind in an image of health, prosperity, and nobility; it is the ultimate expression of man’s unlimited potential. For their detractors, human cloning and genetic manipulation intrude upon the profound nature of the inherently unknowable; they represent the bottomless depths of human arrogance and irresponsibility.
Like most popular debates in modern American culture, this one is driven by the detractors. The most cogent arguments against human cloning come from one of the more pre-eminent bioethicists in the United States, Leon R. Kass, of the University of Chicago. In The Wisdom of Repugnance, Kass offers a visceral, biting critique of human cloning and calls for an immediate international ban on all cloning research. Indicting the moral character of cloning’s advocates and at the same time summing his own critique, he muses: “Shallow are the souls who have forgotten how to shudder.”
While the critics of cloning, and Kass in particular, focus their attention on the spiritual consequences of human cloning, they are right to criticize current efforts in one respect; the current state of cloning technology is not yet advanced enough to warrant human experimentation. Cloning experiments have yet to show success rates in excess of 6 or 7 percent. Many cloned mammals exhibit grotesque genetic disorders, often ones that are life threatening to both the clone and the mother. Clones are routinely born oversized. There is usually a significant amount of birthing trauma for both mother and infant. The lifespan of cloned animals is unusually short. In this respect, it would be grossly irresponsible for anyone to engage in human cloning at the present time. But these risks will undoubtedly be overcome. At such time as the process carries risks comparable to natural reproduction, these objections will cease to be relevant. But the debate is now; concerns about the current feasibility of the procedure should not delay debate on the more substantial spiritual criticisms that the critics raise.
And to be sure, the debate over human cloning has raised the specter of various nightmare scenarios to which a spiritual reaction is indeed appropriate. Cloning technology raises the prospect that chimeras, animal-human hybrids, may be created. Likely chimeras range from the relatively benign recombination of human and pig DNA, where pigs are bred to provide organs for human transplants, to the more disturbing recombination of human and chimpanzee DNA, where apes are bred for sophisticated psychological and psychiatric research. The creation of chimeras blurs the distinctions between man and animal and raises questions that are not easily answered, such as “Would a sentient ape be accorded individual rights?”
Such questions are difficult to answer because they speak to the very essence of human nature. To deal with these kinds of eventualities would require a radically different conception of mankind, human nature, and man’s soul than is currently predominant in American culture. But cloning’s critics are averse to such a reformulation. For them, the questions that cloning raises need not be answered, so long as cloning is stopped now and those questions are never asked. To that end, the critics tend to focus on more immediate issues: the kind of life a cloned child will lead, the effect of cloning on family relationships, and the threat of cloning to traditional spirituality.
For critics like Kass, cloning leaves familial relationships in turmoil, rendering incomprehensible our most basic and personal relationships. A girl cloned from her mother would be her mother’s genetic twin; her grandfather would be her genetic father; and her siblings would be her genetic children. Yet centuries of experience with adopted children have shown that familial relationships are quite resilient. Indeed, the relationships that are formed in a healthy family are likely to render any semantic debate over the nature of “genetic” relationships largely irrelevant.
Critics have raised the prospect that a cloned child will be subject to an unnaturally demanding set of parental expectations. It is undoubtedly true that some parents will place unrealistic expectations on a cloned child–just as parents of “natural” children have been doing for centuries. Many parents already subject their children to terrible psychological stress; the image of a father living vicariously through his son is already a cliché. Parents already have children in attempts to “replace” a lost child or fill other emotional voids. There is, as yet, no way of effectively prohibiting bad child-rearing.
Concerns that a clone will suffer psychological distress from living a life-already-lived are likewise weak. Twins don’t seem to suffer any psychological trauma from living a life-already-being-lived. These arguments amount to a kind of Xerox assumption. Cloning does not produce psychological replicas of the DNA donor. If critics wish to condemn the practice of replication, they would be better off debating the morality of the Xerox machine because psychological replication has nothing to do with human cloning. As identical twins demonstrate, it is certainly possible for two people to share DNA and still live separate and completely fulfilling lives.
These arguments illuminate the critic’s assumption, best exemplified by Kass, that human relationships are determined not by affection or choice but by necessarily arbitrary circumstances. Kass argues that both genetic bonding and social taboos are more responsible for familial kinship than the actual affection that exists between parent and child. “Social taboos on incest everywhere serve to keep clear who is related to whom . . .” For Kass, it is crucially important that both the taboo and the genetic relationship remain unchosen. For Kass, the family is characterized primarily by obligation and duty. He says, “considering reproduction (and the intimate relations of family life!) primarily under the political-legal, adversarial, and individualistic notion of rights can only undermine the private yet fundamentally social, cooperative, and duty-laden character of child-bearing, child-rearing, and their bond to the covenant of marriage.” But lasting familial relationships must be grounded on at least some semblance of mutual respect and shared affection. In fact, most social taboos arise primarily out of the recognition that twisting the mutually consensual nature of any relationship into an act of domination is fundamentally wrong.
More to the point, however, is Kass’s argument that cloning itself represents a kind of despotic domination. Kass sees the parent of the cloned child as subjecting it to a set of demands–forcing it, in effect, to become a particular kind of person. This argument actually leads him, and other critics, to the absurd charge that cloning is wrong because the cloned child cannot consent, before conception, to his existence as a clone. The fact that consent-prior-to-conception on the part of any creature is an utter absurdity is apparently lost on these critics. One wonders if they would perceive an equal injustice in the fact that a child may not choose its sex. Ultimately, however, all parents exert a profound influence upon their children’s lives. And many, if not most, take an active role in the design of their children. Parents select the language and culture in which their children are raised, and (one hopes) give them moral and philosophical guidance. This influence is, for the vast majority of parents and children, a good thing. Cloning does not allow parents a greater degree of control over their children’s lives; it simply provides them with better information and reasonable expectations about the child’s relative fitness, overall health, and intellectual potential.
Cloning does not produce carbon copies, but genetic engineering and cloning do provide individuals with the opportunity to introduce an element of choice into reproduction. Parents may not be able to create duplicates of themselves, but they can create life in their own image. For the religious, this creation stands as a direct affront to God. And while many of cloning’s critics do not explicitly ground their arguments in these religious terms, their ethical foundation is clearly based on a Christian sense of duty and humility.
For the religious critics, it is the presence of the divine spark that exalts man, and cloning represents a threat to that divine spark. If man is capable of remaking his children in his own image, what then is the difference between man and God? Cloning is not simply man playing at godhood; it is man becoming God. For the devout, this is the greatest of all sins. But even many secular critics respond with moral indignation at the prospect that man may start aspiring to godhood. For religious and secular critics alike, the ultimate danger of cloning lies in the fact that it allows man to take an active role in his own being and, as Kass says, “transgress what is unspeakably profound.”
As Kass puts it, such an act reeks of the “excesses of human willfulness” and is evidence of “the Frankensteinian hubris to create human life and increasingly control its destiny.” More than anything else, it is the fact that cloning is an expression of the willful mind of man that most bothers the critics.
This resistance to willfulness is essentially a resistance to reason. The critics’ arguments are characterized by a reliance on faith that finally renders them unable even to articulate their argument. What is all the more enlightening is that some critics, Kass in particular, go so far as to elevate their irrational rage into a kind of moral justification. Cloning, Kass argues, is simply repugnant, and “. . . repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it. . . . Repugnance here, as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness.” It is ultimately the process of discovery and articulation –the process of willful rationality–that Kass opposes.
For critics like Kass, willful rationality militates against the humility of the human soul. The “shallow souls” who have “forgotten how to shudder” at the unknown pose the greatest threat. These critics believe that the human soul is fixed by Creation as an inherently limited and humble thing and that any attempt to understand what is “unspeakably profound” is an act that demands revulsion and repugnance.
But cloning, like any other technology, simply extends man’s range of choices. And it is the extension of choice and the pursuit of knowledge that offer man the opportunity to expand the boundaries of his existence. In the end, man’s spirit, that within him which searches for truth and morality, that part of his mind that aspires and dreams–his soul–is ultimately the product of his own design. Man’s spirit is, fundamentally, not a gift or an accident, but the product of a lifetime’s achievement. His soul is the willful product of his own rationality, the manifestation of his conceptual mind. It is not the shallow shudder of humility that ennobles a man’s soul, but the enraptured embrace of knowledge, opportunity, and choice.
Humans will be cloned. Scientific and technological progress has shown few signs of halting for spiritual objections. Like the birth-control pill and in-vitro fertilization, the technology of cloning will advance, techniques will be improved, and knowledge will be gained. The inevitable questions that cloning technology will raise–questions about family, rights, and what it means to be human–will challenge society’s most deeply cherished and most profound beliefs. But such a challenge should not be resisted. Cloning’s difficult questions can be answered only through a dedicated pursuit of knowledge and an exercise of our willful rationality, and in the end, the answer to the debate over human nature may be simply that the nature of man is the product of his own will.