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The Confusion over Cloning

Cloning Human Beings: Report and Recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission

by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission
110, plus 5-page addendum pp., Rockland, Maryland, June 1997

There is nothing like sex or violence for capturing the immediate attention of the state. Only a day after Franklin Roosevelt was told in October 1939 that both German and American scientists could probably make an atom bomb, a small group met at the President’s direction to talk about the problem and within ten days a committee was undertaking a full-scale investigation of the possibility. Just a day after the public announcement on February 23, 1997, that a sheep, genetically identical to another sheep, had been produced by cloning, Bill Clinton formally requested that the National Bioethics Advisory Commission “undertake a thorough review of the legal and ethical issues associated with the use of this technology‌.”

The President had announced his intention to create an advisory group on bioethics eighteen months before, on the day that he received the disturbing report of the cavalier way in which ionizing radiation had been administered experimentally to unsuspecting subjects.1 The commission was finally formed, after a ten-month delay, with Harold Shapiro, President of Princeton, as chair and a membership consisting largely of academics from the fields of philosophy, medicine, public health, and law, a representation from government and private foundations, and the chief business officer of a pharmaceutical company. In his letter to the commission the President referred to “serious ethical questions, particularly with respect to the possible use of this technology to clone human embryos” and asked for a report within ninety days. The commission missed its deadline by only two weeks.

In order not to allow a Democratic administration sole credit for grappling with the preeminent ethical issue of the day, the Senate held a day-long inquiry on March 12, a mere three weeks after the announcement of Dolly. Lacking a body responsible for any moral issues outside the hanky-panky of its own membership, the Senate assigned the work to the Subcommittee on Public Health and Safety of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, perhaps on the grounds that cloning is a form of the production of human resources. The testimony before the subcommittee was concerned not with issues of the health and safety of labor but with the same ethical and moral concerns that preoccupied the bioethics commission. The witnesses representing the biotechnology industry were especially careful to assure the senators that they would not dream of making whole babies and were interested in cloning solely as a laboratory method for producing cells and tissues that could be used in transplantation therapies.

It seems pretty obvious why, just after the Germans’ instant success in Poland, Roosevelt was in a hurry. The problem, as he said to Alexander Sachs, who first informed him about the possibility of the Bomb, was to “see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.” The origin of Mr. Clinton’s sense of urgency is not so clear. After all, it is not as if human genetic clones don’t appear every day of the week, about thirty a day in the United States alone, given that there are about four million births a year with a frequency of identical twins of roughly 1 in 400.2 So it cannot be the mere existence of doppelgänger that creates urgent problems (although I will argue that parents of twins are often guilty of a kind of psychic child abuse). And why ask the commission on bioethics rather than a technical committee of the National Institutes of Health or the National Research Council? Questions of individual autonomy and responsibility for one’s own actions, of the degree to which the state ought to interpose itself in matters of personal decision, are all central to the struggle over smoking, yet the bioethics commission has not been asked to look into the bioethics of tobacco, a matter that would certainly be included in its original purpose.

The answer is that the possibility of human cloning has produced a nearly universal anxiety over the consequences of hubris. The testimony before the bioethics commission speaks over and over of the consequences of “playing God.” We have no responsibility for the chance birth of genetically identical individuals, but their deliberate manufacture puts us in the Creation business, which, like extravagant sex, is both seductive and frightening. Even Jehovah botched the job despite the considerable knowledge of biology that He must have possessed, and we have suffered the catastrophic consequences ever since. According to Haggadic legend, the Celestial Cloner put a great deal of thought into technique. In deciding on which of Adam’s organs to use for Eve, He had the problem of finding tissue that was what the biologist calls “totipotent,” that is, not already committed in development to a particular function. So He cloned Eve

not from the head, lest she carry her head high in arrogant pride, not from the eye, lest she be wanton-eyed, not from the ear lest she be an eavesdropper, not from the neck lest she be insolent, not from the mouth lest she be a tattler, not from the heart lest she be inclined to envy, not from the hand lest she be a meddler, not from the foot lest she be a gadabout

but from the rib, a “chaste portion of the body.” In spite of all the care and knowledge, something went wrong, and we have been earning a living by the sweat of our brows ever since. Even in the unbeliever, who has no fear of sacrilege, the myth of the uncontrollable power of creation has a resonance that gives us all pause. It is impossible to understand the incoherent and unpersuasive document produced by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission except as an attempt to rationalize a deep cultural prejudice, but it is also impossible to understand it without taking account of the pervasive error that confuses the genetic state of an organism with its total physical and psychic nature as a human being.

After an introductory chapter placing the issue of cloning in a general historical and social perspective, the commission begins with an exposition of the technical details of cloning and with speculations on the reproductive, medical, and commercial applications that are likely to be found for the technique. Some of these applications involve the clonal reproduction of genetically engineered laboratory animals for research or the wholesale propagation of commercially desirable livestock; but these raised no ethical issues for the commission, which, wisely, avoided questions of animal rights.

Specifically human ethical questions are raised by two possible applications of cloning. First, there are circumstances in which parents may want to use techniques of assisted reproduction to produce children with a known genetic makeup for reasons of sentiment or vanity or to serve practical ends. Second, there is the possibility of producing embryos of known genetic constitution whose cells and tissues will be useful for therapeutic purposes. Putting aside, for consideration in a separate chapter, religious claims that human cloning violates various scriptural and doctrinal prescriptions about the correct relation between God and man, men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, or sex and reproduction, the commission then lists four ethical issues to be considered: individuality and autonomy, family integrity, treating children as objects, and safety.

The most striking confusion in the report is in the discussion of individuality and autonomy. Both the commission report and witnesses before the Senate subcommittee were at pains to point out that identical genes do not make identical people. The fallacy of genetic determinism is to suppose that the genes “make” the organism. It is a basic principle of developmental biology that organisms undergo a continuous development from conception to death, a development that is the unique consequence of the interaction of the genes in their cells, the temporal sequence of environments through which the organisms pass, and random cellular processes that determine the life, death, and transformations of cells. As a result, even the fingerprints of identical twins are not identical. Their temperaments, mental processes, abilities, life choices, disease histories, and deaths certainly differ despite the determined efforts of many parents to enforce as great a similarity as possible.

Frequently twins are given names with the same initial letter, dressed identically with identical hair arrangements, and given the same books, toys, and training. There are twin conventions at which prizes are offered for the most similar pairs. While identical genes do indeed contribute to a similarity between them, it is the pathological compulsion of their parents to create an inhuman identity between them that is most threatening to the individuality of genetically identical individuals.

But even the most extreme efforts to turn genetic clones into human clones fail. As a child I could not go to the movies or look at a picture magazine without being confronted by the genetically identical Dionne quintuplets, identically dressed and coiffed, on display in “Quintland” by Dr. Dafoe and the Province of Ontario for the amusement of tourists. This enforced homogenization continued through their adolescence, when they were returned to their parents’ custody. Yet each of their unhappy adulthoods was unhappy in its own way, and they seemed no more alike in career or health than we might expect from five girls of the same age brought up in a rural working-class French Canadian family. Three married and had families. Two trained as nurses, two went to college. Three were attracted to a religious vocation, but only one made it a career. One died in a convent at age twenty, suffering from epilepsy, one at age thirty-six, and three remain alive at sixty-three. So much for the doppelgänger phenomenon. The notion of “cloning Einstein” is a biological absurdity.

The Bioethics Advisory Commission is well aware of the error of genetic determinism, and the report devotes several pages to a sensible and nuanced discussion of the difference between genetic and personal identity. Yet it continues to insist on the question of whether cloning violates an individual human being’s “unique qualitative identity.”

And even if it is a mistake to believe such crude genetic determinism according to which one’s genes determine one’s fate, what is important for oneself is whether one thinks one’s future is open and undetermined, and so still to be largely determined by one’s own choices. [p. A8, emphasis added]

Moreover, the problem of self-perception may be worse for a person cloned from an adult than it is for identical twins, because the already fully formed and defined adult presents an irresistible persistent model for the developing child. Certainly for the general public the belief is widely expressed that a unique problem of identity is raised by cloning that is not already present for twins. The question posed by the commission, then, is not whether genetic identity per se destroys individuality, but whether the erroneous state of public understanding of biology will undermine an individual’s own sense of uniqueness and autonomy.

  1. 1

    Report of the specially created Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (October 3, 1995).

  2. 2

    In fact, identical twins are genetically more identical than a cloned organism is to its donor. All the biologically inherited information is not carried in the genes of a cell’s nucleus. A very small number of genes, sixty out of a total of 100,000 or so, are carried by intracellular bodies, the mitochondria. These mitochondrial genes specify certain essential enzyme proteins, and defects in these genes can lead to a variety of disorders. The importance of this point for cloning is that the egg cell that has had its nucleus removed to make way for the genes of the donor cell has not had its mitochondria removed. The result of the cell fusion that will give rise to the cloned embryo is then a mixture of mitochondrial genes from the donor and the recipient. Thus, it is not, strictly speaking, a perfect genetic clone of the donor organism. Identical twins, however, are the result of the splitting of a fertilized egg and have the same mitochondria as well as the same nucleus.

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