Is It Justifiable or Feasible To Ban Human Cloning Forever?

A few weeks ago, at a conference in Avesta, Sweden, I saw a speaker pick up your new book, Our Posthuman Future, look at it with theatrical disdain, and toss it onto the floor, as if into a trash heap. The speaker was Max More, leader of the “Extropians,” a group that considers technological progress a nearly unmixed blessing and books like yours an impediment to it.

You’ll be happy to hear that I have a higher opinion of your book, which meets your usual standards for acuteness, readability, and timeliness. I agree with you that the coming era of tampering with human reproduction and human nature is in some ways creepy. I’m particularly concerned with something that also concerns you: that, decades from now, as some couples have designer babies while others don’t, we could start to see sharp genetic stratification—maybe even leading, centuries down the road, to the branching of humankind into multiple species.

Still, if I’m not an Extropian, I’m to the Extropian side of you. Though I’m all for regulating biotech where that’s justifiable and feasible, I don’t think it’s going to be as frequently justifiable and feasible as you do.

Take reproductive cloning—that is, cloning to make babies, not stem cells. For now, I grant you, a moratorium on reproductive cloning is warranted. We haven’t figured out how to clone without a great risk of genetic defects—and these defects, as I understand it, are the kind you can’t detect in prenatal screening. But in your book, you say cloning should be “banned outright,” which I take to mean banned forever and ever, in all circumstances, even if we eliminate the risk of defects. Would that be justifiable or feasible?

On the justifiability front, your book definitely opened my eyes to some issues I hadn’t considered. For example: Husband is sterile, so wife clones herself, and 18 years later the husband sees the spitting image of the woman he spent his honeymoon with—only it’s his daughter. Could get weird.

But let’s take a simpler case. Parents tragically lose their 3-year-old daughter, Chloe. Chloe was the joy of their life—and what’s more, she had been, if you’ll pardon the expression, an unusually good specimen. Though the genes for both cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease run in her family, she had possessed neither—nor had she shown the early moodiness that, in her grandmother, had turned out to signal manic-depressive illness. Her parents want a child to fill the void in their lives and would rather not reroll the genetic dice, given the bad genes floating around in their family. Sure, they could use in vitro fertilization to screen for some of the genes—the cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s—but, for whatever reason, whether practical or moral, they don’t want to. What’s more, according to their spiritual beliefs, creating a genetic replica of their departed child is tantamount to resuscitating her soul. (When it comes to religious beliefs, there’s no accounting for taste. In your book you belittle the eccentric, extraterrestrially inspired pro-cloning cult the ” Raelians” while treating long-established religions more reverently. That’s a distinction you’re entitled to make—but is it a distinction public policy should make, as we decide which group’s dogmatic assertions about biotechnology to enshrine in law?)

Now, Frank, I want you to explain to me why the question of whether to clone Chloe is anyone’s business but her parents’. Why should the government tell them to start all over and reroll the genetic dice? You’re of a sufficiently conservative disposition to be wary of government intervention. So what’s the justification for this constraint on human freedom?  

Toward the end of your book, you finesse this question by redefining freedom: “True freedom means the freedom of political communities to protect the values they hold most dear.” Hmmmm … Are the Extropians a “political community”? What if they set up their own municipality? Or, better yet, what if they buy an island from some nation with a loose secession policy and declare themselves a sovereign nation?

That brings us to the feasibility issue: So long as any nation allows cloning, then rich Americans can travel there to do their cloning, regardless of American law. In your book you say this means we need international regulation. Actually, I’d say it means we need global regulation—agreement among 100 percent of nations. As you know, I’m big on global governance. But in this case, is the requisite consensus really in the cards?