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.

Of course it will, but surely the commission has chosen the wrong target of concern. If the widespread genomania propagated by the press and by vulgarizers of science produces a false understanding of the dominance that genes have over our lives, then the appropriate response of the state is not to ban cloning but to engage in a serious educational campaign to correct the misunderstanding. It is not Dr. Wilmut and Dolly who are a threat to our sense of uniqueness and autonomy, but popularizers like Richard Dawkins who describes us as “gigantic lumbering robots” under the control of our genes that have “created us, body and mind.”

Much of the motivation for cloning imagined by the commission rests on the same mistaken synecdoche that substitutes “gene” for “person.” In one scenario a self-infatuated parent wants to reproduce his perfection or a single woman wants to exclude any other contribution to her offspring. In another, morally more appealing, story a family suffers an accident that kills the father and leaves an only child on the point of death. The mother, wishing to have a child who is the biological offspring of her dead husband, uses cells from the dying infant to clone a baby. Or what about the sterile man whose entire family has been exterminated in Auschwitz and who wishes to prevent the extinction of his genetic patrimony?

Creating variants of these scenarios is a philosopher’s parlor game. All such stories appeal to the same impetus that drives adopted children to search for their “real,” i.e., biological, parents in order to discover their own “real” identity. They are modern continuations of an earlier preoccupation with blood as the carrier of an individual’s essence and as the mark of legitimacy. It is not the possibility of producing a human being with a copy of someone else’s genes that has created the difficulty or that adds a unique element to it. It is the fetishism of “blood” which, once accepted, generates an immense array of apparent moral and ethical problems. Were it not for the belief in blood as essence, much of the motivation for the cloning of humans would disappear.

The cultural pressure to preserve a biological continuity as the form of immortality and family identity is certainly not a human universal. For the Romans, as for the Japanese, the preservation of family interest was the preeminent value, and adoption was a satisfactory substitute for reproduction. Indeed, in Rome the foster child (alumnus) was the object of special affection by virtue of having been adopted, i.e., acquired by an act of choice.

The second ethical problem cited by the commission, family integrity, is neither unique to cloning nor does it appear in its most extreme form under those circumstances. The contradictory meanings of “parenthood” were already made manifest by adoption and the old-fashioned form of reproductive technology, artificial insemination from anonymous semen donors. Newer technology like in vitro fertilization and implantation of embryos into surrogate mothers has already raised issues to which the possibility of cloning adds nothing. A witness before the Senate subcommittee suggested that the “replication of a human by cloning would radically alter the definition of a human being by producing the world’s first human with a single genetic parent.”3 Putting aside the possible priority of the case documented in Matthew 1:23, there is a confusion here. Achild by cloning has a full double set of chromosomes like anyone else, half of which were derived from a mother and half from a father. It happens that these chromosomes were passed through another individual, the cloning donor, on their way to the child. That donor is certainly not the child’s “parent” in any biological sense, but simply an earlier offspring of the original parents. Of course this sibling may claim parenthood over its delayed twin, but it is not obvious what juridical or ethical principle would impel a court or anyone else to recognize that claim.

There is one circumstance, considered by the commission, in which cloning is a biologically realistic solution to a human agony. Suppose that a child, dying of leukemia, could be saved by a bone marrow replacement. Such transplants are always risky because of immune incompatibilities between the recipient and the donor, and these incompatibilities are a direct consequence of genetic differences. The solution that presents itself is to use bone marrow from a second, genetically identical, child who has been produced by cloning from the first.4 The risk to a bone marrow donor is not great, but suppose it were a kidney that was needed. There is, moreover, the possibility that the fetus itself is to be sacrificed in order to provide tissue for therapeutic purposes. This scenario presents in its starkest form the third ethical issue of concern to the commission, the objectification of human beings. In the words of the commission:

To objectify a person is to act towards the person without regard for his or her own desires or well-being, as a thing to be valued according to externally imposed standards, and to control the person rather than to engage her or him in a mutually respectful relationship.

We would all agree that it is morally repugnant to use human beings as mere instruments of our deliberate ends. Or would we? That’s what I do when I call in the plumber. The very words “employment” and “employee” are descriptions of an objectified relationship in which human beings are “thing(s) to be valued according to externally imposed standards.” None of us escapes the objectification of humans that arises in economic life. Why has no National Commission on Eth-ics been called into emergency action to discuss the conceptualization of human beings as “factory hands” or “human capital” or “operatives”? The report of the Bioethics Advisory Commission fails to explain how cloning would significantly increase the already immense number of children whose conception and upbringing were intended to make them instruments of their parents’ frustrated ambitions, psychic fantasies, desires for immortality, or property calculations.

Nor is there a simple relation between those motivations and the resulting family relations. I myself was conceived out of my father’s desire for a male heir, and my mother, not much interested in maternity, was greatly relieved when her first and only child filled the bill. Yet, in retrospect, I am glad they were my parents. To pronounce a ban on human cloning because sometimes it will be used for instrumental purposes misses both the complexity of human motivation and the unpredictability of developing personal relationships. Moreover, cloning does not stand out from other forms of reproductive technology in the degree to which it is an instrument of parental fulfillment. The problem of objectification permeates social relations. By loading all the weight of that sin on the head of one cloned lamb, we neatly avoid considering our own more general responsibility.

The serious ethical problems raised by the prospect of human cloning lie in the fourth domain considered by the bioethics commission, that of safety. Apparently, these problems arise because cloned embryos may not have a proper set of chromosomes. Normally, a sexually reproduced organism contains in all its cells two sets of chromosomes, one received from its mother through the egg and one from the father through the sperm. Each of these sets contains a complete set of the different kinds of genes necessary for normal development and adult function. Even though each set has a complete repertoire of genes, for reasons that are not well understood we must have two sets and only two sets to complete normal development. If one of the chromosomes should accidentally be present in only one copy or in three, development will be severely impaired.

Usually we have exactly two copies in our cells because in the formation of the egg and sperm that combined to produce us, a special form of cell division occurs that puts one and only one copy of each chromosome into each egg and each sperm. Occasionally, however, especially in people in their later reproductive years, this mechanism is faulty and a sperm or egg is produced in which one or another chromosome is absent or present more than once. An embryo conceived from such a faulty gamete will have a missing or extra chromosome. Down’s syndrome, for example, results from an extra Chromosome 21, and Edward’s syndrome, almost always lethal in the first few weeks of life, is produced by an extra Chromosome 18.

After an egg is fertilized in the usual course of events by a sperm, cell division begins to produce an embryo, and the chromosomes, which were in a resting state in the original sperm and egg, are induced to replicate new copies by signals from the complex machinery of cell division. The division of the cells and the replication of more chromosome copies are in perfect synchrony so every new cell gets a complete exact set of chromosomes just like the fertilized egg. When clonal reproduction is performed, however, the events are quite different. The nucleus containing the egg’s chromosomes are removed and the egg cell is fused with a cell containing a nucleus from the donor that already contains a full duplicate set of chromosomes. These chromosomes are not necessarily in the resting state and so they may divide out of synchrony with the embryonic cells. The result will be extra and missing chromosomes so that the embryo will be abnormal and will usually, but not necessarily, die.

The whole trick of successful cloning is to make sure that the chromosomes of the donor are in the right state. However, no one knows how to make sure. Dr. Wilmut and his colleagues know the trick in principle, but they produced only one successful Dolly out of 277 tries. The other 276 embryos died at various stages of development. It seems pretty obvious that the reason the Scottish laboratory did not announce the existence of Dolly until she was a full-grown adult sheep is that they were worried that her postnatal development would go awry. Of course, the technique will get better, but people are not sheep and there is no way to make cloning work reliably in people except to experiment on people. Sheep were chosen by the Scottish group because they had turned out in earlier work to be unusually favorable animals for growing fetuses cloned from embryonic cells. Cows had been tried but without success. Even if the methods could be made eventually to work as well in humans as in sheep, how many human embryos are to be sacrificed, and at what stage of their development? 5 Ninety percent of the loss of the experimental sheep embryos was at the so-called “morula” stage, hardly more than a ball of cells. Of the twenty-nine embryos implanted in maternal uteruses, only one showed up as a fetus after fifty days in utero, and that lamb was finally born as Dolly.

Suppose we have a high success rate of bringing cloned human embryos to term. What kinds of developmental abnormalities would be acceptable? Acceptable to whom? Once again, the moral problems said to be raised by cloning are not unique to that technology. Every form of reproductive technology raises issues of lives worth living, of the stage at which an embryo is thought of as human, as having rights including the juridical right to state protection. Even that most benign and widespread prenatal intervention, amniocentesis, has a non-negligible risk of damaging the fetus. By concentrating on the acceptability of cloning, the commission again tried to finesse the much wider issues.

They may have done so, however, at the peril of legitimating questions about abortion and reproductive technology that the state has tried to avoid, questions raised from a reli-gious standpoint. Despite the secular basis of the American polity, religious forces have over and over played an important role in influencing state policy. Churches and religious institutions were leading actors in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad,6 the modern civil rights movement and the resistance to the war in Vietnam. In these instances religious forces were part of, and in the case of the civil rights movement leaders of, wider social movements intervening on the side of the oppressed against then-reigning state policy. They were both liberatory and representative of a widespread sentiment that did not ultimately depend upon religious claims.

The present movements of religious forces to intervene in issues of sex, family structure, reproductive behavior, and abortion are of a different character. They are perceived by many people, both secular and religious, not as liberatory but as restrictive, not as intervening on the side of the wretched of the earth but as themselves oppressive of the widespread desire for individual autonomy. They seem to threaten the stable accommodation between Church and State that has characterized American social history. The structure of the commission’s report reflects this current tension in the formation of public policy. There are two separate chapters on the moral debate, one labelled “Ethical Considerations” and the other “Religious Perspectives.” By giving a separate and identifiable voice to explicitly religious views the commission has legitimated religious conviction as a front on which the issues of sex, reproduction, the definition of the family, and the status of fertilized eggs and fetuses are to be fought.

The distinction made by the commission between “religious perspectives” and “ethical considerations” is precisely the distinction between theological hermeneutics—interpretation of sacred texts—and philosophical inquiry. The religious problem is to recognize God’s truth. If a natural family were defined as one man, one woman, and such children as they have produced through loving procreation; if a human life, imbued by God with a soul, is definitively initiated at conception; if sex, love, and the begetting of children are by revelation morally inseparable; then the work of bioethics commissions becomes a great deal easier. Of course, the theologians who testified were not in agreement with each other on the relevant matters, in part because they depend on different sources of revelation and in part because the meaning of those sources is not unambiguous. So some theologians, including Roman Catholics, took human beings to be “stewards” of a fixed creation, gardeners tending what has already been planted. Others, notably Jewish and Islamic scholars, emphasized a “partnership” with God that includes improving on creation. One Islamic authority thought that there was a positive imperative to intervene in the works of nature, including early embryonic development, for the sake of health.

Some Protestant commentators saw humans as “co-creators” with God and so certainly not barred from improving on present nature. In the end, some religious scholars thought cloning was definitively to be prohibited, while others thought it could be justified under some circumstances. As far as one can tell, fundamentalist Protestants were not consulted, an omission that rather weakens the usefulness of the proceedings for setting public policy. The failure to engage directly the politically most active and powerful American religious constituency, while soliciting opinions from a much safer group of “religious scholars,” can only be understood as a tactic of defense of an avowedly secular state against pressure for a yet greater role for religion. Perhaps the commission was already certain of what Pat Robertson would say.

The immense strength of a religious viewpoint is that it is capable of abolishing hard ethical problems if only we can correctly decipher the meaning of what has been revealed to us.7 It is a question of having the correct “perspective.” Philosophical “considerations” are quite another matter. The painful tensions and contradictions that seem to the secular moral philosopher to be unresolvable in principle, but that demand de facto resolution in public and private action, did not appear in the testimony of any of the theologians. While they disagreed with one another, they did not have to cope with internal contradictions in their own positions. That, of course, is a great attraction of the religious perspective. It is not only poetry that tempts us to a willing suspension of disbelief.

This Issue

October 23, 1997