The Debate about Cloning
In a paper, published in “Science” in May 2005, 25 scientists, led by Woo Suk Hwang of Seoul National University, confirmed that they were able to clone dozens of blastocysts (the clusters of tiny cells that develop into embryos). Blastocysts contain stem cells that can be used to generate replacement tissues and, perhaps, one day, whole organs. The fact that cloned cells are identical to the original cell guarantees that they will not be rejected by the immune system of the recipient.
There are two types of cloning. One involves harvesting stem cells from embryos (“therapeutic cloning”). Stem cells are the biological equivalent of a template or a blueprint. They can develop into any kind of mature functional cell and thus help cure many degenerative and auto-immune diseases.
The other kind of cloning, known as “nuclear transfer”, is much decried in popular culture – and elsewhere – as the harbinger of a Brave, New World. A nucleus from any cell of a donor is embedded in an (either mouse or human) egg whose own nucleus has been removed. The egg can then be coaxed into growing specific kinds of tissues (e.g., insulin-producing cells or nerve cells). These can be used in a variety of treatments.
Opponents of the procedure point out that when a treated human egg is implanted in a woman’s womb a cloned baby will be born nine months later. Biologically, the infant is a genetic replica of the donor. When the donor of both nucleus and egg is the same woman, the process is known as “auto-cloning” (which was achieved by Woo Suk Hwang).
Cloning is often confused with other advances in bio-medicine and bio-engineering – such as genetic selection. It cannot – in itself – be used to produce “perfect humans” or select sex or other traits. Hence, some of the arguments against cloning are either specious or fuelled by ignorance.
It is true, though, that cloning, used in conjunction with other bio-technologies, raises serious bio-ethical questions. Scare scenarios of humans cultivated in sinister labs as sources of spare body parts, “designer babies”, “master races”, or “genetic sex slaves” – formerly the preserve of B sci-fi movies – have invaded mainstream discourse.
Still, cloning touches upon Mankind’s most basic fears and hopes. It invokes the most intractable ethical and moral dilemmas. As an inevitable result, the debate is often more passionate than informed.
See the Appendix – Arguments from the Right to Life
But is the Egg – Alive?
This question is NOT equivalent to the ancient quandary of “when does life begin”. Life crystallizes, at the earliest, when an egg and a sperm unite (i.e., at the moment of fertilization). Life is not a potential – it is a process triggered by an event. An unfertilized egg is neither a process – nor an event. It does not even possess the potential to become alive unless and until it merges with a sperm. Should such merger not occur – it will never develop life.
The potential to become X is not the ontological equivalent of actually being X, nor does it spawn moral and ethical rights and obligations pertaining to X. The transition from potential to being is not trivial, nor is it automatic, or inevitable, or independent of context. Atoms of various elements have the potential to become an egg (or, for that matter, a human being) – yet no one would claim that they ARE an egg (or a human being), or that they should be treated as one (i.e., with the same rights and obligations).
Moreover, it is the donor nucleus embedded in the egg that endows it with life – the life of the cloned baby. Yet, the nucleus is usually extracted from a muscle or the skin. Should we treat a muscle or a skin cell with the same reverence the critics of cloning wish to accord an unfertilized egg?
Is This the Main Concern?
The main concern is that cloning – even the therapeutic kind – will produce piles of embryos. Many of them – close to 95% with current biotechnology – will die. Others can be surreptitiously and illegally implanted in the wombs of “surrogate mothers”.
It is patently immoral, goes the precautionary argument, to kill so many embryos. Cloning is such a novel technique that its success rate is still unacceptably low. There are alternative ways to harvest stem cells – less costly in terms of human life. If we accept that life begins at the moment of fertilization, this argument is valid. But it also implies that – once cloning becomes safer and scientists more adept – cloning itself should be permitted.
This is anathema to those who fear a slippery slope. They abhor the very notion of “unnatural” conception. To them, cloning is a narcissistic act and an ignorant and dangerous interference in nature’s sagacious ways. They would ban procreative cloning, regardless of how safe it is. Therapeutic cloning – with its mounds of discarded fetuses – will allow rogue scientists to cross the boundary between permissible (curative cloning) and illegal (baby cloning).
Why Should Baby Cloning be Illegal?
Cloning’s opponents object to procreative cloning because it can be abused to design babies, skew natural selection, unbalance nature, produce masters and slaves and so on. The “argument from abuse” has been raised with every scientific advance – from in vitro fertilization to space travel.
Every technology can be potentially abused. Television can be either a wonderful educational tool – or an addictive and mind numbing pastime. Nuclear fission is a process that yields both nuclear weapons and atomic energy. To claim, as many do, that cloning touches upon the “heart” of our existence, the “kernel” of our being, the very “essence” of our nature – and thus threatens life itself – would be incorrect.
There is no “privileged” form of technological abuse and no hierarchy of potentially abusive technologies. Nuclear fission tackles natural processes as fundamental as life. Nuclear weapons threaten life no less than cloning. The potential for abuse is not a sufficient reason to arrest scientific research and progress – though it is a necessary condition.
Some fear that cloning will further the government’s enmeshment in the healthcare system and in scientific research. Power corrupts and it is not inconceivable that governments will ultimately abuse and misuse cloning and other biotechnologies. Nazi Germany had a state-sponsored and state-mandated eugenics program in the 1930’s.
Yet, this is another variant of the argument from abuse. That a technology can be abused by governments does not imply that it should be avoided or remain undeveloped. This is because all technologies – without a single exception – can and are abused routinely – by governments and others. This is human nature.
Fukuyama raised the possibility of a multi-tiered humanity in which “natural” and “genetically modified” people enjoy different rights and privileges. But why is this inevitable? Surely this can easily by tackled by proper, prophylactic, legislation?
All humans, regardless of their pre-natal history, should be treated equally. Are children currently conceived in vitro treated any differently to children conceived in utero? They are not. There is no reason that cloned or genetically-modified children should belong to distinct legal classes.
It is very anthropocentric to argue that the proliferation of genetically enhanced or genetically selected children will somehow unbalance nature and destabilize the precarious equilibrium it maintains. After all, humans have been modifying, enhancing, and eliminating hundreds of thousands of species for well over 10,000 years now. Genetic modification and bio-engineering are as natural as agriculture. Human beings are a part of nature and its manifestation. By definition, everything they do is natural.
Why would the genetic alteration or enhancement of one more species – homo sapiens – be of any consequence? In what way are humans “more important” to nature, or “more crucial” to its proper functioning? In our short history on this planet, we have genetically modified and enhanced wheat and rice, dogs and cows, tulips and orchids, oranges and potatoes. Why would interfering with the genetic legacy of the human species be any different?
Effects on Society
Cloning – like the Internet, the television, the car, electricity, the telegraph, and the wheel before it – is bound to have great social consequences. It may foster “embryo industries”. It may lead to the exploitation of women – either willingly (“egg prostitution”) or unwillingly (“womb slavery”). Charles Krauthammer, a columnist and psychiatrist, quoted in “The Economist”, says:
“(Cloning) means the routinisation, the commercialisation, the commodification of the human embryo.”
Exploiting anyone unwillingly is a crime, whether it involves cloning or white slavery. But why would egg donations and surrogate motherhood be considered problems? If we accept that life begins at the moment of fertilization and that a woman owns her body and everything within it – why should she not be allowed to sell her eggs or to host another’s baby and how would these voluntary acts be morally repugnant? In any case, human eggs are already being bought and sold and the supply far exceeds the demand.
Moreover, full-fledged humans are routinely “routinised, commercialized, and commodified” by governments, corporations, religions, and other social institutions. Consider war, for instance – or commercial advertising. How is the “routinisation, commercialization, and commodification” of embryos more reprehensible that the “routinisation, commercialization, and commodification” of fully formed human beings?
Curing and Saving Life
Cell therapy based on stem cells often leads to tissue rejection and necessitates costly and potentially dangerous immunosuppressive therapy. But when the stem cells are harvested from the patient himself and cloned, these problems are averted. Therapeutic cloning has vast untapped – though at this stage still remote – potential to improve the lives of hundreds of millions.
As far as “designer babies” go, pre-natal cloning and genetic engineering can be used to prevent disease or cure it, to suppress unwanted traits, and to enhance desired ones. It is the moral right of a parent to make sure that his progeny suffers less, enjoys life more, and attains the maximal level of welfare throughout his or her life.
That such technologies can be abused by over-zealous, or mentally unhealthy parents in collaboration with avaricious or unscrupulous doctors – should not prevent the vast majority of stable, caring, and sane parents from gaining access to them.
Appendix – Arguments from the Right to Life
I. Right to Life Arguments
According to cloning’s detractors, the nucleus removed from the egg could otherwise have developed into a human being. Thus, removing the nucleus amounts to murder.
It is a fundamental principle of most moral theories that all human beings have a right to life. The existence of a right implies obligations or duties of third parties towards the right-holder. One has a right AGAINST other people. The fact that one possesses a certain right – prescribes to others certain obligatory behaviours and proscribes certain acts or omissions. This Janus-like nature of rights and duties as two sides of the same ethical coin – creates great confusion. People often and easily confuse rights and their attendant duties or obligations with the morally decent, or even with the morally permissible. What one MUST do as a result of another’s right – should never be confused with one SHOULD or OUGHT to do morally (in the absence of a right).
The right to life has eight distinct strains:
IA. The right to be brought to life
IB. The right to be born
IC. The right to have one’s life maintained
ID. The right not to be killed
IE. The right to have one’s life saved
IF. The right to save one’s life (erroneously limited to the right to self-defence)
IG. The right to terminate one’s life
IH. The right to have one’s life terminated
IA. The Right to be Brought to Life
Only living people have rights. There is a debate whether an egg is a living person – but there can be no doubt that it exists. Its rights – whatever they are – derive from the fact that it exists and that it has the potential to develop life. The right to be brought to life (the right to become or to be) pertains to a yet non-alive entity and, therefore, is null and void. Had this right existed, it would have implied an obligation or duty to give life to the unborn and the not yet conceived. No such duty or obligation exist.
IB. The Right to be Born
The right to be born crystallizes at the moment of voluntary and intentional fertilization. If a scientist knowingly and intentionally causes in vitro fertilization for the explicit and express purpose of creating an embryo – then the resulting fertilized egg has a right to mature and be born. Furthermore, the born child has all the rights a child has against his parents: food, shelter, emotional nourishment, education, and so on.
It is debatable whether such rights of the fetus and, later, of the child, exist if there was no positive act of fertilization – but, on the contrary, an act which prevents possible fertilization, such as the removal of the nucleus (see IC below).
IC. The Right to Have One’s Life Maintained
Does one have the right to maintain one’s life and prolong them at other people’s expense? Does one have the right to use other people’s bodies, their property, their time, their resources and to deprive them of pleasure, comfort, material possessions, income, or any other thing?
The answer is yes and no.
No one has a right to sustain his or her life, maintain, or prolong them at another INDIVIDUAL’s expense (no matter how minimal and insignificant the sacrifice required is). Still, if a contract has been signed – implicitly or explicitly – between the parties, then such a right may crystallize in the contract and create corresponding duties and obligations, moral, as well as legal.
No fetus has a right to sustain its life, maintain, or prolong them at his mother’s expense (no matter how minimal and insignificant the sacrifice required of her is). Still, if she signed a contract with the fetus – by knowingly and willingly and intentionally conceiving it – such a right has crystallized and has created corresponding duties and obligations of the mother towards her fetus.
On the other hand, everyone has a right to sustain his or her life, maintain, or prolong them at SOCIETY’s expense (no matter how major and significant the resources required are). Still, if a contract has been signed – implicitly or explicitly – between the parties, then the abrogation of such a right may crystallize in the contract and create corresponding duties and obligations, moral, as well as legal.
Everyone has a right to sustain his or her life, maintain, or prolong them at society’s expense. Public hospitals, state pension schemes, and police forces may be required to fulfill society’s obligations – but fulfill them it must, no matter how major and significant the resources are. Still, if a person volunteered to join the army and a contract has been signed between the parties, then this right has been thus abrogated and the individual assumed certain duties and obligations, including the duty or obligation to give up his or her life to society.
ID. The Right not to be Killed
Every person has the right not to be killed unjustly. What constitutes “just killing” is a matter for an ethical calculus in the framework of a social contract.
But does A’s right not to be killed include the right against third parties that they refrain from enforcing the rights of other people against A? Does A’s right not to be killed preclude the righting of wrongs committed by A against others – even if the righting of such wrongs means the killing of A?
Not so. There is a moral obligation to right wrongs (to restore the rights of other people). If A maintains or prolongs his life ONLY by violating the rights of others and these other people object to it – then A must be killed if that is the only way to right the wrong and re-assert their rights.
This is doubly true if A’s existence is, at best, debatable. An egg does not a human being make. Removal of the nucleus is an important step in life-saving research. An unfertilized egg has no rights at all.
IE. The Right to Have One’s Life Saved
There is no such right as there is no corresponding moral obligation or duty to save a life. This “right” is a demonstration of the aforementioned muddle between the morally commendable, desirable and decent (“ought”, “should”) and the morally obligatory, the result of other people’s rights (“must”).
In some countries, the obligation to save life is legally codified. But while the law of the land may create a LEGAL right and corresponding LEGAL obligations – it does not always or necessarily create a moral or an ethical right and corresponding moral duties and obligations.
IF. The Right to Save One’s Own Life
The right to self-defence is a subset of the more general and all-pervasive right to save one’s own life. One has the right to take certain actions or avoid taking certain actions in order to save his or her own life.
It is generally accepted that one has the right to kill a pursuer who knowingly and intentionally intends to take one’s life. It is debatable, though, whether one has the right to kill an innocent person who unknowingly and unintentionally threatens to take one’s life.
IG. The Right to Terminate One’s Life
See “The Murder of Oneself”.
IH. The Right to Have One’s Life Terminated
The right to euthanasia, to have one’s life terminated at will, is restricted by numerous social, ethical, and legal rules, principles, and considerations. In a nutshell – in many countries in the West one is thought to has a right to have one’s life terminated with the help of third parties if one is going to die shortly anyway and if one is going to be tormented and humiliated by great and debilitating agony for the rest of one’s remaining life if not helped to die. Of course, for one’s wish to be helped to die to be accommodated, one has to be in sound mind and to will one’s death knowingly, intentionally, and forcefully.
II. Issues in the Calculus of Rights
IIA. The Hierarchy of Rights
All human cultures have hierarchies of rights. These hierarchies reflect cultural mores and lores and there cannot, therefore, be a universal, or eternal hierarchy.
In Western moral systems, the Right to Life supersedes all other rights (including the right to one’s body, to comfort, to the avoidance of pain, to property, etc.).
Yet, this hierarchical arrangement does not help us to resolve cases in which there is a clash of EQUAL rights (for instance, the conflicting rights to life of two people). One way to decide among equally potent claims is randomly (by flipping a coin, or casting dice). Alternatively, we could add and subtract rights in a somewhat macabre arithmetic. If a mother’s life is endangered by the continued existence of a fetus and assuming both of them have a right to life we can decide to kill the fetus by adding to the mother’s right to life her right to her own body and thus outweighing the fetus’ right to life.
IIB. The Difference between Killing and Letting Die
There is an assumed difference between killing (taking life) and letting die (not saving a life). This is supported by IE above. While there is a right not to be killed – there is no right to have one’s own life saved. Thus, while there is an obligation not to kill – there is no obligation to save a life.
IIC. Killing the Innocent
Often the continued existence of an innocent person (IP) threatens to take the life of a victim (V). By “innocent” we mean “not guilty” – not responsible for killing V, not intending to kill V, and not knowing that V will be killed due to IP’s actions or continued existence.
It is simple to decide to kill IP to save V if IP is going to die anyway shortly, and the remaining life of V, if saved, will be much longer than the remaining life of IP, if not killed. All other variants require a calculus of hierarchically weighted rights. (See “Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life” by Baruch A. Brody).
One form of calculus is the utilitarian theory. It calls for the maximization of utility (life, happiness, pleasure). In other words, the life, happiness, or pleasure of the many outweigh the life, happiness, or pleasure of the few. It is morally permissible to kill IP if the lives of two or more people will be saved as a result and there is no other way to save their lives. Despite strong philosophical objections to some of the premises of utilitarian theory – I agree with its practical prescriptions.
In this context – the dilemma of killing the innocent – one can also call upon the right to self defence. Does V have a right to kill IP regardless of any moral calculus of rights? Probably not. One is rarely justified in taking another’s life to save one’s own. But such behaviour cannot be condemned. Here we have the flip side of the confusion – understandable and perhaps inevitable behaviour (self defence) is mistaken for a MORAL RIGHT. That most V’s would kill IP and that we would all sympathize with V and understand its behaviour does not mean that V had a RIGHT to kill IP. V may have had a right to kill IP – but this right is not automatic, nor is it all-encompassing.