Critical Mass

Human Clones: Why Not?

Opposition to cloning isn’t just Luddism–it’s racism.

If you can clone a sheep, you can almost certainly clone a human being. Some of the most powerful people in the world have felt compelled to act against this threat. President Clinton swiftly imposed a ban on federal funding for human-cloning research. Bills are in the works in both houses of Congress to outlaw human cloning–a step urged on all governments by the pope himself. Cloning humans is taken to be either 1) a fundamentally evil thing that must be stopped or, at the very least, 2) a complex ethical issue that needs legislation and regulation. But what, exactly, is so bad about it?

Start by asking whether human beings have a right to reproduce. I say “yes.” I have no moral right to tell other people they shouldn’t be able to have children, and I don’t see that Bill Clinton has that right either. When Clinton says, “Let us resist the temptation to copy ourselves,” it comes from a man not known for resisting other temptations of the flesh. And for a politician, making noise about cloning is pretty close to a fleshly temptation itself. It’s an easy way to show sound-bite leadership on an issue that everybody is talking about, without much risk of bitter consequences. After all, how much federally funded research was stopped by this ban? Probably almost none, because Clinton has maintained Ronald Reagan’s policy of minimizing federal grants for research in human reproduction. Besides, most researchers thought cloning humans was impossible–so, for the moment, there’s unlikely to be a grant-request backlog. There is nothing like banning the nonexistent to show true leadership.

The pope, unlike the president, is known for resisting temptation. He also openly claims the authority to decide how people reproduce. I respect the pope’s freedom to lead his religion, and his followers’ freedom to follow his dictate. But calling for secular governments to implement a ban, thus extending his power beyond those he can persuade, shows rather explicitly that the pope does not respect the freedom of others. The basic religious doctrine he follows was set down some two millennia ago. Sheep feature prominently in the Bible, but cloning does not. So the pope’s views on cloning are 1st century rules applied using 15th century religious thinking to a 21st century issue.

If humans have a right to reproduce, what right does society have to limit the means? Essentially all reproduction is done these days with medical help–at delivery, and often before. Truly natural human reproduction would mean 50 percent infant mortality and make pregnancy-related death the No. 1 killer of adult women.

True, some forms of medical help are more invasive than others. With in vitro fertilization, the sperm and egg are combined in the lab and surgically implanted in the womb. Less than two decades ago, a similar concern was raised over the ethical issues involved in “test-tube babies.” To date, nearly 30,000 such babies have been born in the United States alone. Many would-be parents have been made happy. Who has been harmed?

The cloning procedure is similar to IVF. The only difference is that the DNA of sperm and egg would be replaced by DNA from an adult cell. What law or principle–secular, humanist, or religious–says that one combination of genetic material in a flask is OK, but another is not? No matter how closely you study the 1st century texts, I don’t think you’ll find the answer.

Even if people have the right to do it, is cloning a good idea? Suppose that every prospective parent in the world stopped having children naturally, and instead produced clones of themselves. What would the world be like in another 20 or 30 years? The answer is: much like today. Cloning would only copy the genetic aspects of people who are already here. Hating a world of clones is hating the current populace. Never before was Pogo so right: We have met the enemy, and he is us!

Adifferent scare scenario is a world filled with copies of famous people only. We’ll treat celebrity DNA like designer clothes, hankering for Michael Jordan’s genes the way we covet his Nike sneakers today. But even celebrity infatuation has its limits. People are not more taken with celebrities than they are with themselves. Besides, such a trend would correct itself in a generation or two, because celebrity is closely linked to rarity. The world seems amused by one Howard Stern, but give us a hundred or a million of them, and they’ll seem a lot less endearing.

Clones already exist. About one in every 1,000 births results in a pair of babies with the same DNA. We know them as identical twins. Scientific studies on such twins–reared together or apart–show that they share many characteristics. Just how many they share is a contentious topic in human biology. But genetic determinism is largely irrelevant to the cloning issue. Despite how many or how few individual characteristics twins–or other clones–have in common, they are different people in the most fundamental sense. They have their own identities, their own thoughts, and their own rights. Should you be confused on this point, just ask a twin.

Suppose that Unsolved Mysteries called you with news of a long-lost identical twin. Would that suddenly make you less of a person, less of an individual? It is hard to see how. So, why would a clone be different? Your clone would be raised in a different era by different people–like the lost identical twin, only younger than you. A person’s basic humanity is not governed by how he or she came into this world, or whether somebody else happens to have the same DNA.

Twins aren’t the only clones in everyday life. Think about seedless grapes or navel oranges–if there are no seeds, where did they come from? It’s the plant equivalent of virgin birth–which is to say that they are all clones, propagated by cutting a shoot and planting it. Wine is almost entirely a cloned product. The grapes used for wine have seeds, but they’ve been cloned from shoots for more than a hundred years in the case of many vineyards. The same is true for many flowers. Go to a garden store, and you’ll find products with delightful names like “Olivia’s Cloning Compound,” a mix of hormones to dunk on the cut end of a shoot to help it take root.

O ne recurring image in anti-cloning propaganda is of some evil dictator raising an army of cloned warriors. Excuse me, but who is going to raise such an army (“raise” in the sense used by parents)? Clones start out life as babies. Armies are far easier to raise the old fashioned way–by recruiting or drafting naive young adults. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori has worked well enough to send countless young men to their deaths through the ages. Why mess with success?

Remember that cloning is not the same as genetic engineering. We don’t get to make superman–we have to find him first. Maybe we could clone the superwarrior from Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Their bravery might–or might not–be genetically determined. But, suppose that it is. You might end up with such a brave battalion of heroes that when a grenade lands in their midst, there is a competition to see who gets to jump on it to save the others. Admirable perhaps, but not necessarily the way to win a war. And what about the supply sergeants? The army has a lot more of them than heroes. You could try to breed an expert for every job, including the petty bureaucrats, but what’s the point? There’s not exactly a shortage of them.

What if Saddam Hussein clones were to rule Iraq for another thousand years? Sounds bad, but Saddam’s natural son Uday is reputed to make his father seem saintly by comparison. We have no more to fear from a clone of Saddam, or of Hitler, than we do from their natural-born kin–which is to say, we don’t have much to fear: Dictators’ kids rarely pose a problem. Stalin’s daughter retired to Arizona, and Kim Jong Il of North Korea is laughable as Great Leader, Version 2.0.

The notion of an 80-year-old man cloning himself to cheat death is quaint, but it is unrealistic. First, the baby wouldn’t really be him. Second, is the old duffer really up to changing diapers? A persistent octogenarian might convince a younger couple to have his clone and raise it, but that is not much different from fathering a child via a surrogate mother.

Fear of clones is just another form of racism. We all agree it is wrong to discriminate against people based on a set of genetic characteristics known as “race.” Calls for a ban on cloning amount to discrimination against people based on another genetic trait–the fact that somebody already has an identical DNA sequence. The most extreme form of discrimination is genocide–seeking to eliminate that which is different. In this case, the genocide is pre-emptive–clones are so scary that we must eliminate them before they exist with a ban on their creation.

What is so special about natural reproduction anyway? Cloning is the only predictable way to reproduce, because it creates the identical twin of a known adult. Sexual reproduction is a crap shoot by comparison–some random mix of mom and dad. In evolutionary theory, this combination is thought to help stir the gene pool, so to speak. However, evolution for humans is essentially over, because we use medical science to control the death rate.

Whatever the temptations of cloning, the process of natural reproduction will always remain a lot more fun. An expensive and uncomfortable lab procedure will never offer any real competition for sex. The people most likely to clone will be those in special circumstances–infertile couples who must endure IVF anyway, for example. Even there, many will mix genetics to mimic nature. Another special case is where one member of a couple has a severe genetic disease. They might choose a clone of the healthy parent, rather than burden their child with a joint heritage that could be fatal.

The most upsetting possibility in human cloning isn’t superwarriors or dictators. It’s that rich people with big egos will clone themselves. The common practice of giving a boy the same name as his father or choosing a family name for a child of either sex reflects our hunger for vicarious immortality. Clones may resonate with this instinct and cause some people to reproduce this way. So what? Rich and egotistic folks do all sorts of annoying things, and the law is hardly the means with which to try and stop them.

T he”deep ethical issues” about cloning mainly boil down to jealousy. Economic jealousy is bad enough, and it is a factor here, but the thing that truly drives people crazy is sexual jealousy. Eons of evolution through sexual selection have made the average man or woman insanely jealous of any interloper who gains a reproductive advantage–say by diddling your spouse. Cloning is less personal than cuckoldry, but it strikes a similar chord: Someone has got the reproductive edge on you.

Once the fuss has died down and further animal research has paved the way, direct human cloning will be one more option among many specialized medical interventions in human reproduction, affecting only a tiny fraction of the population. Research into this area could bring far wider benefits. Clinton’s knee-jerk policy changes nothing in the short run, but it is ultimately a giant step backward. In using an adult cell to create a clone, the “cellular clock” that determines the difference between an embryo and adult was somehow reset. Work in this area might help elucidate the process by which aging occurs and yield a way to reset the clocks in some of our own cells, allowing us to regenerate. Selfishly speaking, that would be more exciting to me than cloning, because it would help me. That’s a lot more directly useful than letting me sire an identical twin 40 years my junior.

To some, the scientist laboring away to unlock the mysteries of life is a source of evil, never to be trusted. To others, including me, the scientist is the ray of light, illuminating the processes that make the universe work and making us better through that knowledge. Various arguments can be advanced toward either view, but one key statistic is squarely on my side. The vast majority of people, including those who rail against science, owe their very lives to previous medical discoveries. They embody the fruits of science. Don’t let the forces of darkness, ignorance, and fear turn us back from research. Instead, let us raise–and yes, even clone–new generations of hapless ingrates, who can whine and rail against the discoveries of the next age.