By Sophia M. Kolehmainen, JD


Until recently, discussions about human cloning were conducted within the realm of science fiction and fantasy. However, with the successful cloning of the sheep "Dolly" in 1997, it became evident that sooner or later, scientists might be able to clone human beings, too. This possibility has incited both support and opposition. Newspapers and magazines have described cloning as an exciting step forward that allows genetic engineers to reduce the uncertainties of reproduction, but they have also published commentaries by scientists, religious figures, and others who see human cloning as an attack on human dignity. This Essay focuses on whether we as a society should accept human cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer to create offspring.


Somatic cell nuclear transfer is the cloning technique that was used by the Scottish scientists to produce Dolly. It involves the removal of DNA from an egg-cell and fusion of that enucleated egg with a differentiated cell from an already existing organism, like a skin cell, or in the case of Dolly, a mammary cell from a sheep which had been dead for six years. The Scottish scientists found that fusing the two cells with an electric shock triggered a "reprogramming" which caused the combined egg-mammary cell to divide and mature like an early embryo.

Cloning technology developed as a way to improve the production of genetically engineered animals. There are huge financial profits to be made by developing genetically engineered animals that secrete chemicals and proteins of value to humans, such as cows or goats that produce human blood clotting agents in their milk. Without cloning, scientists must genetically manipulate each individual animal, which results in very low success rates. However, with cloning comes the possibility that scientists need only perfect one animal to clone an entire herd from that success. The goal is not to copy everything about the animal, only the property that has been engineered into it. The desire of some genetic engineers to gain control over the innermost workings of animals fueled the further development of cloning technology. It is out of this context that some people are now attempting to justify human cloning.

The transfer of cloning techniques to humans, however, creates a host of unique technical, ethical and social issues that aren’t currently raised in the cloning of animals. Whereas the point of cloning animals is to create more economically efficient bio-factories of identical animals with value to humans, cloning humans is being suggested as a procreative technique to copy existing people.

In 1998 reporters covered Richard Seed’s declaration that he intended to raise the funds to produce two to three copies of himself through cloning. This announcement illustrates the false view held by many that cloning will result in exact copies of existing, or dead, individuals. This is just not true. The cloning process would never produce an exact copy of the cloned person. Though an individual manufactured by cloning would posses the same genetic sequence as the person whose nucleus was used other factors also substantially affect the development of an individual. An individual’s development may be affected by structural and metabolic influences of the enucleated egg and the differentiated cell, as well as influences during gestation. In addition, non-genetic factors such as nutrition, home environment, education, economic situation, and culture add significantly to the development of personhood. Just as with animals, cloning humans will never produce exact copies.

Other false views persist in the language of cloning, namely equating cloning with reproduction, and equating cloning with the birth of identical twins. A cloned individual would be one made by scientists, using a pre-existing genetic configuration, without the joining of gametes from two people. The cloning process is not sexual reproduction, but is more akin to asexual replication of organisms that simply split in two. The production of a clone is vastly different from the process by which twins are born. So-called identical twins, though genetically identical to one another, have two genetic parents, and are still biologically unprecedented in that their genetic configuration has never existed before.


It would be a mistake to develop and use cloning as a technique to replicate human beings. It is questionable what benefits would be gained from the successful creation of a cloned human being, if any, and whether they would justify the radical impact cloning would have on our society. Cloning is not just another reproductive technology that should be made available to those who choose to use it, but is an unnecessary and dangerous departure from evolutionary processes and social practices that have developed over millions of years. As with many other developments in biotechnology, some scientists and commentators are asking us to accept cloning of humans just because it is technically possible, but there are few good reasons to develop the technology, and many reasons not to develop it.


    The most frequently stated argument against cloning is based on safety concerns. After the news of Dolly, President Clinton convened the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) to review the legal and ethical issues of the potential cloning of a human. The NBAC heard testimony and read opinions on the multitude of complex issues surrounding human cloning, but in the end, the NBAC based its recommendation for a three to five year moratorium on human cloning in the United States on safety concerns.

    At this point in the process of experimenting with cloning, safety is an important concern. The production of Dolly required at least 276 failed attempts. No one knows why these attempts failed and why one succeeded. Cloning presents different obstacles in every species, as embryo implantation, development, and gestation differ among different species. Human cloning therefore could not become a reality without extensive human experimentation. Though 276 "failed" lambs may be acceptable losses, the ethical implications of failed or partially successful human experiments are unacceptable.

    Inhibitions concerning human experimentation would seem to be an impassable ethical and practical barrier to human cloning, but there may come a time when scientists feel they have enough knowledge from animal experiments to proceed with human trials. Even if questions of safety could be eliminated, which is highly unlikely, or if public opinion and scientific hubris were to reach the point where the risks associated with human experimentation seemed less egregious, human cloning should still be prohibited for several reasons.


    Cloning would encourage the commodification of humans. Though industrialized societies commodify human labor and human lives, the biological commodification involved in human cloning would be of a vastly different order. Cloning would turn procreation into a manufacturing process, where human characteristics become added options and children, objects of deliberate design. This process of commodification needs to be actively opposed. It produces no benefits and it undermines the very basis of our established notions of human individuality and dignity.


    Cloning would also disrespect human diversity in ethnicity and ability. Though it is not possible to produce exact copies of animals or people, inherent in cloning is the desire to do so. The process of cloning would necessarily increase conformity, and eradicate genetic variety. A society that supported cloning as an acceptable procreative technique, would imply that variety is not important. Especially in a multicultural nation like the United States, where diversity and difference are of the essence, any procedure that reduced our acceptance of differences would be dangerous. It is clear from the tensions that exist in our society that we should be embracing processes that increase our appreciation for the diversity of individuals, not working to remove differences.


    The process of cloning would inevitably invite the use of other genetic technologies, specifically genetic manipulation of cloned embryos, and this could result in permanent, heritable changes to the human gene pool. Some scientists pretend that they can predict which genes humans would be better off without. However, there is no way to acquire the requisite genetic knowledge to make such a prediction without experimental genetic manipulation, which would have implications for subsequent generations. Such experiments must not be done, since both the errors and supposed successes of genetic manipulation would be with humanity forever. Although the potential applications of human genetic engineering may appeal to some, the experimental nature of the technique, and the permanence of the results, would make it a highly dangerous innovation.


    Cloning would allow for genetic manipulation that sets the stage for increased efforts at eugenics. Eugenics is the attempt to improve human beings, not by improving their economic, social, and educational opportunities, but by altering the genes with which they are born. Cloning would allow scientists to begin with a known human prototype (the person to be cloned) and then "improve" it by modifying specific traits. People who wanted to be cloned could have themselves cloned only to be taller, blonder, smarter. The threat of eugenics is inherent in technologies that allow individuals to try to modify inherited characteristics so as to give preference to specific ones. It would be impossible to embark on human cloning without opening the door to eugenics. After all, cloning in animals by "improving" their inherited characteristics is a deliberate form of animal eugenics.


    Ordinary procreation, whether it results in twins or singletons, is an open-ended process that depends on the random coming together of an egg and sperm cell. Each new individual has a unique configuration of genes which leads to an amazing range of human variability. Cloning forecloses the opportunity for genetic surprise and growth among cloned humans, limiting such future people to genetic configurations that have been expressed before.


The discussion above provides a strong basis to support a prohibition on human cloning. Cloning developed in the context of animal commodification and the technique’s intent and purposes are not applicable in humans. Even setting aside the fact that cloning cannot produce exact copies, and that it cannot go forward without much prior human experiment, the above arguments weigh heavily against ever allowing the cloning of humans.

In addition, there are no clear, defensible arguments in favor of offering cloning as an option for producing offspring. Cloning is endorsed by some as a procreative technique that provides a cure to infertility or an option for people who have genes they do not want to pass on and the chance to have genetically related offspring for gay and lesbian couples or people without partners. Such arguments are not convincing.

Their flaws stem from the fallacy of their premise and their neglect of the availability of other, less questionable, options. First, if cloning were in fact a "cure" for infertility, then infertility would no longer exist. Newborns, elderly people, women who have had complete hysterectomies, and people born without ovaries or testes would all be able to bear offspring. In reality, cloning does nothing to alleviate the underlying environmental or social causes of infertility. Labeling cloning as a cure for infertility implies the acceptance of entirely new definitions of fertility and infertility, and is therefore misleading. Technically, cloning is replication of that which already exists. It is not a "cure" for anything.

Current reproductive technologies offer couples who have genes they don’t want to pass on, or gays, lesbians, and people without partners an array of alternatives to cloning. People can choose genetic testing to avoid transmitting certain genes to their offspring. Lesbians, gays, and unpartnered people can acquire sperm, eggs, embryos and gestational ("surrogate") mothers. Adoption is another option.

Problems associated with rising rates of infertility will not be solved through the development of high-tech, invasive and expensive interventions. Even now, rather than answering the needs of people unable to reproduce, many of the new technologies used in assisted reproduction actually create needs and make it increasingly difficult for people to accept other, less complex and invasive solutions. The psychological problems associated with infertility are created by societal as well as by personal pressures, and should be understood and dealt with at that level.

Some proponents of human cloning who recognize the weakness of their arguments, continue to support the development of human cloning under the banner of freedom — freedom of reproductive choice and freedom of scientific inquiry. They argue that people should have the choice to produce offspring in this way, and scientists should have the option to explore human cloning without outside interference. With these arguments, proponents of human cloning are able to side-step the lack of clear benefits of this technology by raising a banner to "freedom" and "choice."

The ill-defined boundaries of a person’s right to procreative autonomy makes some people cautious about prohibiting cloning. The NBAC report noted that a prohibition on cloning would be in tension with the fundamental right to procreate. The right to privacy and some level of autonomy in decision- making about procreation can be traced through a series of Supreme Court decisions. Generally speaking, this line of cases supports the notion that the decision whether to bear or not to bear a child is one which is of the most personal and private nature and should therefore be made without governmental interference. Some cloning proponents have extended this right to mean that the government has an obligation to support the development of all techniques that may help citizens reproduce.

This is an improper expansion of the right to be free from governmental interference in reproductive decision-making. A prohibition on cloning does not interfere with that right because the government does not have the obligation to ensure that each citizen who wants a child has a child. The right covers only the right of individuals, who can reproduce, to reproduce (or not) without government interference. Providing and safe-guarding the option to clone, in the face of the numerous negative implications of the technology, is not an acceptable justification to support the technique.

Another argument used to counter a prohibition on cloning is that it would stifle scientific inquiry. But, science is not an unbiased, objective field of study, and not all scientific possibilities need be accepted by society. Scientific research is conducted by people with personal and professional interests in the outcome and continuation of their work. It is often motivated by a quest for profits and power. A prohibition on human cloning may indeed make it more difficult for scientists to study some inherited genetic diseases, though that is far from clear. However, allowing cloning in order to meet this hypothetical need would radically alter our current concepts of humanity and of procreation. Not all scientific inquiry has equal priority and the question should be who gets to set the priorities; scientists, their funders, or the public. Like other publicly supported activities, science must serve the public interest and the public should have the power to influence decisions about which paths are worth exploring.


The cloning debate, like the debates surrounding the introduction of many of the new genetic technologies, often reflects the proposition that if science can do something, it should be done. Scientists introduce new technologies with inflated promises of potentially solving the world’s problems--genetically engineered crops to end world hunger, or mapping the human genome so as to end disease. Researchers and their investors promote these technologies without proof of actual benefit or lack of harm. In reality, many of these "miracle" inventions could cause harm, and to date few of the promised benefits have been realized.

Human cloning represents another one of these false "miracles." It would cure no disease while it would markedly alter our relationships to each other and the natural world. Human cloning cannot proceed without crossing numerous ethical boundaries. With no identifiable benefit to the technique, existing social and legal arguments against it should not be set aside, and human cloning should therefore be permanently banned.

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