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The Ethics of Human CloningReview - The Ethics of Human Cloning
by Leon R. Kass and James Q. Wilson
AEI Press, 1998
Review by Jason L. Mallory
May 16th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 20)

The thought of a "baby factory" designed with the sole purpose of manufacturing millions of genetically-isomorphic Adolf Hitlers strikes most of us as a horrific state of affairs. In The Ethics of Human Cloning, a mercifully brief read of 100 pages, this and other fantastic worries concerning human cloning are analyzed with penetrating scrutiny by two leading scientists. For the layperson neither interested in abstruse philosophical quibbling nor versed in the scientific literature, this succinct book serves as a useful primer on the morality of cloning humans. The disparate normative commitments of the authors, moreover, are striking and provides for a balanced treatment: Leon R. Kass, a spirited defender of conservative values and natural law theory; and James Q. Wilson, a moderate and progressive-minded utilitarian.

The book begins with a descriptive account of the science of cloning organisms, which is traced back to the successful cloning experiment with Dolly the lamb in 1997. The actual cloning process (or, technically, "somatic cell nuclear transfer"), involves the transfer of the nucleus of a non-germ cell (i.e., a cell not from eggs or sperm) into an egg cell that is both unfertilized and has its own nucleus removed. To fuse the cell, an electric current is applied; the cell is then implanted into the womb of the clone recipient and, if successfully acclimated to the uterine environment, will result in the development of a being that is a genetic duplicate of the donated non-germ cell.

Considering that the original cell used to create Dolly was the only out of 277 fused cells that survived to create a viable, living lamb, we may be inclined to think it unreasonable, at least for the near future, to expect a similar scientific achievement with human cells. Nevertheless, Kass is especially vehement that unless laws are enacted to prohibit all cloning of humans (including cloning human embryos for medical research), we will soon be faced with a possibility that he views as absolutely reprehensible or, in his words, "repugnant".

Why, on Kass’s account, is human cloning such an abominable notion? In his first essay (the book is divided into a series of short essays by the authors), Kass explains how the "wisdom of repugnance" is a trustworthy guide to our considered judgments regarding human cloning. Although a central premise to his argument, I find this appeal to our initial reactions to be less than compelling. Kass believes repugnance to be "the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it", yet there seem to be a plethora of examples to show that we now embrace numerous practices once deemed abhorrent at first blush. Kass, I think, is willing to countenance a few such instances, but he does not seem to realize how these might weaken the force of his argument.

Would not one expect, for example, a slave-owning member of the Confederacy to express strong aversion at the thought of all African-Americans, who were "clearly" meant to be nothing more than property, experiencing emancipation from slavery? Similarly, would not the idea of transplanting human organs into other human bodies (i.e. organ transplantation) be deemed repulsive to the sensibilities of generations past? Despite the initial repugnance of these pre-modern individuals to modern practices, there are persuasive reasons why we have adopted (and should continue to adopt) more egalitarian policies regarding racial equality, and doctors now use transplantation as a means of extending the duration and quality of human life.

The second argument that Kass promulgates, an appeal to the "profundity of sex", I found to be equally unconvincing. We are told that reproduction by means of cloning is "a radical departure from the natural human way, confounding all normal understandings of father, mother, sibling, and grandparent all moral relations tied thereto." In response, one might ask the following question. Are not we also venturing on a "radical departure from the natural human way" when we send humans to the moon, transplant non-human animal organs into human bodies, and live in a submarine for months on end? I would wager that Kass condones, and even supports, such endeavors—even though they are not uncontroversially the "natural" thing to do. (Is it natural for humans to "fly" to other planets, use organs from other animals, or live underwater?)

An ethic such as Kass’s that readily recognizes the "normative pointings" of nature not only must provide a clear distinction between what is natural and unnatural (which, by no means, is a facile task), and provide reasons why the commonly-recognized fallacy of deriving a normative claim from a descriptive fact (the so-called "naturalistic fallacy") turns out not to be so fallacious. It would be unrealistic, of course, to presume Kass had the space, in such a short piece, to address these foundational issues of his morality, so I encourage the reader to read with a charitable attitude and search out the more astute observations and arguments (there are many) made by this preeminent thinker.

The second author, James Q. Wilson, offered much more solid argumentation regarding human cloning. Wilson believes that we must resist making hasty legislative decisions and balance our fears with the potential benefits to society. We must, according to Wilson, consider the potential humanitarian and scientific merit that cloning human embryos holds. For example, cloned human embryonic research, many argue, is a promising means of finding cures for debilitating illnesses and hereditary medical complications. Wilson also argues that the majority of our anxieties concerning human cloning are largely exaggerated.

Wilson takes there to be two legitimate worries about human cloning: the threat to the welfare of the cloned child and our species’s genetic diversity. The first concern can be adequately addressed if we ensure that all cloned individuals are cared for by two loving parents. If human clones can be guaranteed to be born into welcoming families, Wilson argues, there is little cause for worry about parents who would allow "their child to be used as an organ bank for defective adults or as the next-generation proxy for a malevolent dictator." I think Wilson is right: it is a reasonable stipulation, if we are to permit human cloning, that we ought to safeguard human clones’s welfare by securing, by legal means, the love conferred upon them by parental ties.

Wilson’s second concern regards the worries over potential decreased genetic diversity if the practice of cloning humans was adopted on a wide-spread scale. If we decide to clone millions of individuals with, say, genius-level IQs and an athlete’s physique, we could be, the objection runs, setting ourselves up for faring badly in unique future environments that may require, for continued survival, altogether different traits. In effect, cloning the "best" traits may "make good sense to parents, but it is bad news for the species."

This also seems like a sensible objection. However, as Wilson notes, there are good reasons to suspect that most people will choose not to clone, even after given the opportunity. Most people would still choose the "lottery" of conception, with all its attendant surprises and fascinating combination of genetic traits, over the sterile and certain outcome afforded by cloning. Wilson is also correct to mention that, insofar as one is concerned about the process of fashioning progeny, the sexual union between two people continues to provide pleasurable experiences that make it simply unrealistic to expect humanity to exchange en masse the act of copulation for asexual reproduction. Therefore, it would seem that, even if human cloning were to become available as an option for would-be parents, we need not fear that it would enjoy the mass-adoption necessary to render realistic our fears about imperiled genetic diversity.

Although I found Wilson’s arguments to be impeccable on the whole, I found it troubling that both he and Kass failed to address two corollary concerns. First, the ethical implications of using non-human animals in clonal research was assumed to be permissible under all circumstances. Cloning research on animals, Kass maintains, is unqualifiedly acceptable due to the "inviolable distinction between animal and human cloning." I am afraid that this distinction, when it is made, cannot very easily escape the charge of arbitrariness. Why not, for example, draw the line between female human clones and male human clones? Or, perhaps more defensibly, we should distinguish between intellectually-disabled human clones and intellectually-normal human clones? It seems that, if we are to be fair, we must consider the welfare of all relevant parties—whether they be human or non-human.

In other words, I find it difficult, morally speaking, to sanction, as do Kass and Wilson, all clonal research on non-humans without first taking into account the relevant interests (e.g., not to feel pain, to be fed, sheltered) of humans and non-humans. That is, I think we should endeavor to minimize both non-humans’ and humans’ suffering and death whenever possible; we should "sacrifice" non-human lives only when it can be shown that this must be done to prevent an even greater harm to other sentient beings (be they human or non-human). I am not entirely certain that human cloning holds this greater humanitarian and hedonic promise. If it does not, perhaps we cannot morally justify our usurpation of the interests of non-human animals for human cloning purposes.

Secondly, while I was reading the essays by Kass, I was dismayed by the implicit (and sometimes explicit) contempt he seemed to bestow upon those working for women’s rights and individuals outside the heterosexual mainstream. In particular, he belittles the women’s movement by characterizing it as a movement that would embrace human cloning if it successfully "liberates women from the need for men altogether". Historically, from the early suffragists to modern-day campaigners against date-rape, proponents of women’s liberation have rarely advocated an Amazonian world without men. To the contrary, many feminists view the progress they make against women’s oppression as progress for all of humanity, often seeing their work as consonant with that of other humane and liberation movements.

I also found Kass’s discussion of the gay rights movement to be similarly shallow. He is correct when he maintains that many members within (as well as without) this movement do believe that sexuality is largely constructed by contingent social factors and, hence, there is no normative complimentarity to a relationship between a male and a female per se. However, Kass’s claim that gay rights advocates, with their philosophy of inclusive acceptance of others, are responsible for the fact that the "stable, monogamous marriage as the ideal home for procreation is no longer the agreed-upon cultural norm" is neither a fair nor accurate charge. Many within the gay and lesbian community desire the right to legal, monogamous same-sex marriages, yet are consistently denied this opportunity—often on the grounds that to do so would jeopardize the integrity and stability of the institution of marriage. Kass’s claim also is not factually correct in that current sociological surveys do note that most people still hold marriage as the normative ideal, even if it is not the descriptive norm.

Aside from the preceding objections to Kass’s arguments, I did find The Ethics of Human Cloning to be a worthwhile introduction to the moral conundrums presented by human cloning. After carefully considering the arguments of Kass and Wilson, I have come to the following conclusions regarding this moral dilemma. In essence, I take the debate on human cloning to hinge on the results of empirical research: the statistical likelihood of benefiting human health from research on clonal embryos; the assurance that affectionate and caring parents would be present to welcome a cloned human into the world; the number of parents who choose this method of reproduction and how these numbers would affect humans’ genetic diversity; the probability of the extent of harm to human clones; what interests of non-human animals would be preserved or violated and how this relates to the overall good; and other such variables.

Obtaining these facts and probabilities, to say nothing of informing our public policy with the results of such research, will not be an effortless project; however, I believe the stakes are too high and the issue too complex to present either a blanket affirmative or negative response to the prospect of cloning humans. Notwithstanding our strong intuitions of caution (and even "repugnance"), the cloning of humans, given specific conditions, does have the potential to be both an effective means of reproduction (on par with in vitro fertilization) and provide an auspicious line of research into the causes and cures for serious diseases.

Wilson sums up well, in a nutshell, the predicament that confronts us: "The central question facing those who approach cloning with an open mind is whether the gains from human cloning—a remedy for infertility and substitute for adoption—are worth the risks of farming organs, propagating dictators, and impeding evolution." Like Wilson, I think there are good reasons to believe that, if certain precautionary measures prevail, the advantages of human cloning very well might outweigh the disadvantages.


Jason L. Mallory graduated with a B.A. in Psychology and Special Honors in Philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin, and he is now completing his M.A. in Philosophy at Texas A&M University. Jason has wide-ranging academic and personal interests in moral philosophy, psychology, intellectual history, peace studies, metaphysics of personal identity, philosophical counseling, Plato, and social criticism; and he has presented professional papers on topics of environmental ethics and feminist theory. In his free time, Jason enjoys discussing politics and encouraging others to vote for the Green Party. Also, he is very happy to have had the fortuity to meet his all-time favorite figure in contemporary psychology, Dr. Albert Ellis, a couple of years ago at a seminar on cognitive-behavioral therapy.


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