Paternity puzzler

February 6, 1998

The response of bioethicist John Harris to the possibility of human cloning is "Why not?" (THES, January 23).

While he is right to call for reasoned debate, his defence of the individual's right to procreate misses an important point: the rights and views of the children.

The "why not?" argument is exactly the one he used in the earlier debate about the use of donated sperm for artificial insemination. He argued then that it was no different from giving blood, an altruistic act for others, and that even if some children experienced psychological problems, it would not be at the level of wishing that they had never been born. Another prominent bioethicist argued that only high levels of suicide would justify a ban on the introduction of donor insemination (DI).

There is now evidence from DI children, who are now adults, that some indeed experience wishing that they had never been born. They are angry at the way they were created, angry at the secrecy that surrounds their origin, and some find it very distressing that they cannot perceive their father as a person, only as a syringe.

Their anger is directed both towards their parents and towards the clinicians involved, all of whom no doubt acted in good faith, encouraged by arguments similar to those of John Harris.

There are two things to bear in mind. First, that we distinguish between the cloning of individuals and the application of cloning techniques for medical reasons. Second, that we learn the lessons of history and take full account of the potential views of children resulting from cloning and the application of cloning techniques.

Those who react against cloning are not all "gut reactors" in The Sun mould, as presented by Harris. Some are deeply concerned about the potential consequences for the children thus created.

What would the pressure be like for cloned children for whom parents and society may have even higher and more specific preconceived expectations? This is in addition to having to deal with the fact of their unusual "unnatural"? origins.

The crucial question is, "Is it fair to bring a child into the world under these particular circumstances?" Perhaps that is a question John Harris would like to ask his nine-year-old son?

Alexina McWhinnie

Senior research fellow Department of social work University of Dundee

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