Monday, July 29, 2002

Clarity on Cloning

The President’s Council on Bioethics lead by Leon Kass has clarified the debate and what is at stake regarding human cloning with its recent report, “Human Cloning and Human Dignity" ( Independent of the issue of cloning, the report also provides us with a rich lode of reflection on the tension between science and society, the meaning of family life including the obligations and limitations of parenthood, and the purpose of government. In the report, all council members request an immediate ban on cloning for the purpose of producing human beings, and a majority of council members (10 of 17) argues for a four-year moratorium on cloning for research purposes. The council's report apparently emerges not a moment too soon, as Baroness Mary Warnock, architect of Britain's fertility laws, has recently defended human cloning in principle on a limited scale (Warnock Interview).

The report rejects cloning-to-produce-children against proponents of cloning who typically “overemphasize the freedom, desires, and control of parents, and pay insufficient attention to the well-being of the cloned child-to-be.” The council cites such potential problems of cloning-to-produce-children as identity difficulties in cloned children whose lives may be overshadowed by incessant comparisons to the “original,” the tendency to view children as products rather than gifts, troubled family relations resulting from cloned children having the same DNA as a parent or grandparent, and the acceptance of the idea that one generation could achieve mastery over the next encouraged even by small-scale cloning.

According to the report, rights-based arguments are inadequate in deciding cloning-to-produce-children questions because “procreation is, by its very nature, a limitation of absolute rights, since it brings into existence another human being toward whom we have responsibilities and duties.” In contrast to clones, children born from sexual reproduction are genetically independent of their parents, and this is a “salutary reminder to parents of the independence they must one day grant their children and for which it is their duty to prepare them.” Sexual reproduction, therefore, gives children a certain important independence and sense of uniqueness while still locating them “in a network of relation and natural affection.” Genetic twins do not suffer from the identity problems that a clone would face because they are of the same generation; “both begin life together and neither is yet known to the world.” This argument is apparently lost on Baroness Warnock who specifically cites the existence of twins born from sexual reproduction, each with its own identity, in her defense of cloning. It is unclear from the interview if the Baroness is considering psychological identity which could be considerably compromised in a clone or the political rights of the clone as opposed to those of the "original." If it is the latter, the Baroness is incorrect to equate sexually reproduced twins to a clone with its "original" in political rights, since the clone is immediately much more a manipulated product of external human will. The very act of cloning willy-nilly places the "parents" or gene-manipulators in a superior position than sexual progenitors to the "offspring."

As the council's report argues, human dignity is at stake when we threaten natural procreation, where “two individuals give life to a new human being whose endowments are not shaped deliberately by human will, whose being remains mysterious, and the open-endedness of whose future is ratified and embraced. . . . [c]hildren born of this process stand equally beside their progenitors as fellow human beings, not beneath them as made objects.” The act of cloning, as opposed to sexual procreation, teaches us to receive the next generation “less with gratitude and surprise than with control and mastery.”

In defending a moratorium on cloning-for-research, the report argues that the proponents of cloning-for-research misunderstand the significance of the potentiality of the embryo and that hazardous moral precedents would be set by the routinized cloning and destruction of nascent human life. Here the report takes the opportunity for an extended reflection on disease and the function of medicine. According to the report, “the doctor is, at different times, a reminder of the intractable sadness of human life, but also explicitly a conqueror who beats back suffering and disease with the saving hand of medical knowledge and technique, and who inspirits us with hope to go forward even in the absence of cure and relief.” The alleviation of suffering is a noble goal, but because its underlying impulse may result in ignoble acts, such as experimentation upon human beings and embryos, it must be governed. “As highly as we value health and longer life, we know that life itself loses its value if we care only for how long we live, and not also for how we live.”

These remarks are only a taste of what the report has to offer in the way of serious reflection on family life, medicine, and the duty of government. With the report, members of Congress and the President now have the means to gain an understanding of what is at stake on the issue of human cloning. They should follow the council’s advice and pass a moratorium on cloning. Rejecting the analysis of the Baroness won't mark the first time that the new world will have set the standard for the old, especially in defending equality and seeking to thwart tyranny (in this case, of one generation over another).


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