As soon as Scottish scientists announced that they had successfully cloned a sheep from cells of another sheep, people began to be alarmed at the prospect of cloning human beings. Editorial after editorial warned that we’d be “playing God”, that we’d be creating Frankenstein-like soul-less creatures, and that we’d be encouraging people’s tendency towards egoism to reach its ultimate expression by enabling human beings to clone themselves. President Clinton banned all federal funding for research leading to the cloning of human beings and called for a voluntary moratorium on private research. Pope John Paul II denounced “dangerous experiments” that harm human dignity.
I, too, have some concerns about cloning human beings; but I think that most of the fears people have are misplaced. As a philosopher who has worked on issues concerning personal identity and, more recently, medical ethics, I have a different perspective on the issue of human cloning from most commentators. Perhaps I can make a useful contribution to the discussion of this topic.
I would, first, like to examine five concerns the general population seems to have about cloning human beings and argue that they show either a misunderstanding about the process and/or result of cloning, or else an ignorance of what it is that we already do. I shall argue that there is nothing in principle more questionable about the cloning of human beings than practices we currently engage in. However, I do have two serious concerns about how the new technology is likely to be used; and, since I am not convinced that that there are any really good reasons at the present time for cloning human beings, I too would vote against permitting it.
1. It has been claimed that if we cloned human beings that we’d be “playing God.” What does this mean? Presumably it does not mean that we would be, through our actions, creating a (human) life because that has been going on since Adam and Eve. Is it, rather, the idea that scientists would be involved in the process of creating life, rather than life resulting through the “natural” means of sexual intercourse? But this is nothing new. Artificial insemination, the use of fertility drugs, and in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques have been used to create children who would not have existed without the help or interference (depending upon whether you approve of the practices or not) of modern science. So anyone who argues that the cloning of human beings is wrong because scientists are involved in the process of creating a human life should not be objecting to the cloning of human beings in particular. They should also be opposed to other medical techniques which have been used to help childless couples and single women have children who would not have been able to otherwise.
Furthermore, those who object to cloning simply on the grounds that it’s “unnatural” (rather than the more specific “unnatural creation of human life”) should also be objecting to the use of antibiotics, surgery, vaccinations, etc., which prolong life unnaturally. They should similarly object to hair-coloring, synthetic clothing, air-conditioning, the use of sun-screen and the like.
It seems doubtful that when people criticize human cloning on the grounds that we’d be “playing God” that what is really bothering them is that it is “unnatural” because a) there’s nothing new about that and b) very few people would, if pressed, advocate that we should live totally “natural” lives (whatever that would mean).
Since most people don’t have as negative a reaction to the use of artificial insemination, fertility drugs or IVF technology to create a child as they do to the idea of creating a human being through cloning, it isn’t just the use of modern technology to assist in the creation of human life which bothers them. Perhaps it is felt that we’d be “playing God” more by creating a child through cloning than, say, IVF because we would be creating a particular child. Instead of a process by which “you get what you get,” cloning seems to make it possible to create exactly the person you want.
There are two problems, however, with this view. First, it assumes that children created in other ways have whatever qualities they have by chance. We must simply wait to see what we get. But that certainly is no longer true. Couples considering creating a child through sexual intercourse can find out quite a bit about the probable and, in some cases, certain qualities of their prospective children. And artificial insemination and IVF technologies enable people to increase the odds that a child will have certain qualities (or won’t have certain negative qualities). Furthermore, IVF technology makes it possible to decide which embryo(s) to implant after a DNA analysis is performed so it is already possible to choose to bring a particular child (or even identical twins) into existence.(If this is not yet feasible, it surely will be soon.) It is even possible, with preimplantation diagnosis (PID) to implant one identical twin and freeze the other for future use, if the parents like the way the first one turned out. This is very close to the results of cloning.