Brave New World

Sibling Rivalry

Is your clone your daughter—or your sister?

News that some goofy sect claims to have produced the first human clone has the bioethics community in a predictable uproar: The professors are popping up on television; the ministers and rabbis are issuing denunciatory press releases. Odds are, this is just the usual guff, since no one really believes that the Raelians have succeeded at their queasy little experiment, and one can assume that in a week or so it’ll all pass.

But even if the smirkingly named Eve is real, the idea that cloning humans is a solution to anything at all rests on a colossal mistake, which we ought to clear out of the way for good. So:

A clone is not, by any stretch, the offspring of the woman who bears it.It’s the identical twin of whoever ponied up the original DNA strand.

In the Raelians’ case, the implications get creepy very quickly. Eve’s genes came from the woman who carried her—call her, for convenience’s sake, Jane Doe. That is, Doe’s own DNA strand was inserted into an egg, which was then implanted back into Doe’s body. But Eve, despite being carried by Doe, is not her descendant: She’s her twin sister, born a few decades late, perhaps, but very solidly a sibling. Of course, carrying a child to term counts for something, but that just makes things worse: it turns Ms. Doe into a volunteer for the horrifying position made memorable by Faye Dunaway in Chinatown:

“She’s my daughter.” (Slap.) “She’s my sister.” (Slap.) “She’s my daughter.” (Slap.) “She’s my sister.” (Slap.) “She’s my daughter and my sister.”

Since the primary market for this kind of cloning is presumably infertile couples for whom standard treatments have not worked, a little lesson in genetics ought to dry up the revenue stream quickly. Indeed, the taboos quickly multiply into rococo variations. Eve, for example, upon reaching the age of consent, can safely have an affair with Mr. Doe, if they both should choose, for this would not be father-daughter incest but merely a case of a man sleeping with his wife’s sister. Discomfiting, perhaps, but not beyond the pale. Suppose he did, and—lo!—Eve got pregnant. The resulting child would be not Jane Doe’s grandchild but her niece or nephew. Suppose, again, that Ms. Doe decided upon a second cloned pregnancy, this time using Mr. Doe’s DNA. The son she bore (for symmetry’s sake we’ll call him Adam), would have no genetic relationship to his putative sister, Eve, at all, and can couple with her freely, should such a hair-raising courtship appeal to him.

We can play this game all morning, but it’s gruesome enough on paper; I suspect almost no one would want to play it in real life, and a simple bit of terminology adjustment might keep the lid on the process indefinitely. The Associated Press wire refers to the woman who carried Eve as the baby’s “mother.” Instead, they should call her Eve’s “twin sister,” or better yet, some ungainly portmanteau word that more accurately reflects the circumstances: “twother,” “sisther,” “sother,”—or, to be perfectly on the point, “poor deluded victim of a benighted scientific culture.”