How will history judge cloning?: Julian Savulescu

May 6, 2005

David Oderberg finds cloning morally repugnant, but Julian Savulescu sees the birth of a new prejudice - clonism

The cloning of human beings is inevitable. When it happens, it will represent one of the greatest scientific advances. The first human clone will be the first artificial human. It will be a true test-tube baby created by science in an utterly different way from what God or nature ordained for us.

Reproductive cloning will allow people with genetic diseases and males with diseased sperm to have their own children, and it will enable infertile couples who can produce only a limited number of embryos to increase the available number if a pregnancy fails. Those who want a healthy baby (or one with certain characteristics such as high intelligence, beauty or physical ability) might employ cloning along with in vitro fertilisation to produce a range of embryos. They could then select the one with the best genetic profile.

Cloning could be used to produce a source of stem cells for a sick sibling or relative. In the event of a new pandemic threatening humanity, it could be used to rapidly multiply those individuals with disease-resistant genomes. And basic research into cloning techniques will yield knowledge of why we age, why we develop cancer and how our cells develop specific functions. It will be another arrow in the human quiver of choice over how long and well we live, over our reproduction and perhaps even the survival of our species.

Cloning is power and opportunity over our destiny. Eventually, artificial reproduction will become safer and more efficient than natural reproduction. Sex will continue to occur - but for pleasure, not reproduction.

When Dolly the sheep was cloned, the German Chancellor said this would lead to "Xeroxing people". But current techniques cannot copy people - only genomes. To claim otherwise is crude genetic determinism. A clone with the DNA of Hitler, Einstein or Mozart would not be Hitler, Einstein or Mozart.

We are the product not only of our genes but also of the environment and our own free choices.

The European Parliament has pronounced that "the individual has a right to his or her own genetic identity". But where does this right come from, and what is its value if an individual is cloned from an embryo or a person who is long dead or lives on the other side of the world?

A related objection is that clones would "live in the shadow" of the individual they were cloned from. Opponents say they would be subjected to the expectations and biases of people who knew the older clone. But what would make their lives problematic is the way in which their parents, peers and society treat them. That is, they would be discriminated against.

The European Parliament, Unesco and the World Health Organisation all find cloning an "affront to human dignity". But no one is developing drugs to reduce the rate of identical twinning. Such natural clones were once seen as evil and killed at birth. Now we recognise that they are ordinary, autonomous individuals who share a genome.

Negative attitudes to clones represent a new form of discrimination - clonism. To label the creation of a clone an affront to human dignity is like saying creating a black person or a woman is an affront to human dignity. People deserve equal concern and respect, regardless of the origin of their genome. In the future, gene therapy will rid people of genetic diseases. Will such humans be discriminated against because they are "genetically modified"? What matters is not how we came to have the genes we have or from whom the genetic material came. Clones will not be genetic bastards. They will be people who deserve concern and respect.

Safe and efficient cloning can be done now. For more than ten years, it has been possible to create identical twins by splitting an early embryo. If one of these twins were frozen, it could be implanted later to create clones of different ages. Would that be wrong? Any problems would stem from how we treat those human beings. We should not be clonists, just as we should not be racists or sexists.

Another favourite objection to cloning is that it is born of narcissism and commodifies children. But people have children for all sorts of reasons.

Cloning would indeed signal a new kind of human relationship. But the role of parents would be the same: to love the child in their care and give it a good upbringing. Experience with in vitro fertilisation shows that producing a child by artificial reproduction does not necessarily preclude love. How we treat each other is our choice.

Mavericks such as Severino Antinori may be judged harshly by history for being negligents who recklessly attempted unsafe and poorly tested reproductive techniques on human beings. But if they succeed, they may be admitted to that club of great individuals who brought about a quantum leap - not only in the way we reproduce, but also in how we understand ourselves and our relationship to new forms of human being.

Julian Savulescu is professor in practical ethics at Oxford University.


How will history judge cloning? will be held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on May 12 at 7pm. For tickets, telephone 020 7306 0055 extension 216.

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