The Magazine

THE PARADOX OF CLONING

May 26, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 36 • By JAMES Q. WILSON
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Let us suppose that it becomes possible to clone human beings. The creation of Dolly the cloned sheep makes this more likely than anyone once suspected. How should we react to this event?

Like most people, I instinctively recoil from the idea. There is, I think, a natural sentiment that is offended by the mental picture of identical babies being produced in some biological factory. When we hear a beautiful model say that she would like to have a clone of herself, we are puzzled. When we recall The Boys from Brazil, a story of identical offspring of Adolf Hitler being raised in order to further his horrible work, we are outraged.

But before deciding what we think about cloning, we ought to pause and identify more precisely what it is about the process that is so distressing. My preliminary view is that the central problem is not creating an identical twin but creating it without parents.

Happily, we need not react immediately to human cloning. The task of moving from one sheep to many sheep, and from sheep to other animals, and from animals to humans, will be long and difficult. Dolly was the only lamb to emerge out of 277 attempts, and we still do not know how long she will live or what diseases, if any, she might contract.

And the risks attendant on a hasty reaction are great. A premature ban on any scientific effort moving in the direction of cloning could well impede useful research on the genetic basis of diseases or on opportunities for improving agriculture. Already a great deal of work is underway on modifying the genetic structure of laboratory animals in order to study illnesses and to generate human proteins and antibodies. Aware of the value of genetic research, several members of Congress have expressed reservations about quick legislative action. Nevertheless, bills to ban cloning research have been introduced.

But even if such bills pass, the argument will be far from over. Congress may regulate or even block cloning research in the United States, but other countries are free to pursue their own strategies. If cloning is illegal in America but legal in Japan or China, Americans will go to those countries as cloning techniques are perfected. Science cannot be stopped. We should have learned this from the way we regulate drug treatments. We can ban a risky but useful drug, but the only effect is to limit its use to those who are willing and able to pay the airfare to Hong Kong.

There are both philosophical and utilitarian objections to cloning. Two philosophical objections exist. The first is that cloning violates God's will by creating an infant in a way that does not depend on human sexual congress or make possible the divine inculcation of a soul. That is true, but so does in vitro fertilization. An egg and a sperm are united outside the human body in a glass container. The fertilized egg is then put into the body of either the woman who produced it or another woman hired to bear the infant. When first proposed, in vitro fertilization was ethically suspect. Today, it is generally accepted, and for good reason. Science supplies what one or both human bodies lack, namely, a reasonable chance to produce an infant. Surely God can endow that infant with a soul. Cloning, of course, removes one of the conjugal partners, but it is hard to imagine that God's desire to bestow a unique soul can be blocked by the fact that the infant does not result from an egg and sperm's joining but instead arises from an embryonic egg's reproducing itself.

The other philosophical objection is that cloning is contrary to nature. This is often asserted by critics of cloning who do not believe in an active God. I sympathize with this reaction, but few critics have yet made clear to me what compelling aspect of nature cloning violates. To the extent this objection has meaning, I think it must arise from the danger that the cloned child will be put to various harmful uses. If so, it cannot easily be distinguished from the more practical problems.

One set of those problems requires us to imagine scientists' cloning children in order to harvest organs and body parts or producing for later use many Adolf Hitlers or Saddam Husseins. I have no doubt that there will arise mad scientists willing to do these things. After all, they have already created poison gas and conducted grisly experiments on prisoners of war and concentration-camp inmates.