Cloning is one of those ethical problems that seemed terribly urgent twenty years ago, but which, for some reason, dropped off of our collective radar. Ever wonder why? Well now the New Atlantis has the definitive answer.
The latest issue of the New Atlantis features a giant, multi-part report on cloning in general, and human cloning in particular. The findings are deeply unsettling, because it turns out that the problems with cloning didn't disappear when Dolly the sheep kicked it. Here's the New Atlantis setting the table:
When the world learned in 1997 of Dolly the sheep, the first clone produced from an adult mammal, a broad public discussion about the ethics of human cloning ensued, largely focused on the nature, meaning, and future of human procreation. However, following the successful derivation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998, the debate over human cloning largely shifted to the question of whether it is acceptable for scientists to create human embryos only to destroy them. The subsequent discovery of promising alternative techniques for generating stem cells without creating or destroying embryos seemed to show that scientific progress would obviate the demand for cloning. But cloning research continued, and American scientists announced in 2013 that they had for the first time successfully obtained stem cells from cloned human embryos.
Since then, the talk in cloning technology circles has revolved around two basic uses: cloning for biomedical research and cloning to produce human children. It's hard to say which is worse:
Although the latest scientific work related to cloning has been focused on potential medical applications, much of that research is relevant to the creation of cloned children. Not only would cloning-to-produce-children be a dangerous experimental procedure, one that cannot be consented to by its subjects (the children created by it), it is also a profound distortion of the moral meaning of human procreation. Giving adults the opportunity to have what has been called the "ultimate 'single-parent child'" would contribute to the commodification of children, and would withhold from children the possibility of a relationship with both a genetic mother and father. Cloning-to-produce-children could also be used to attempt to control the physical and even psychological traits of children, extending the eugenic logic of those who would use reproductive biotechnology to have the perfect child. This form of genetic engineering would deny the children it produces an open future, burdening them with the expectation that they will be like the individuals from whom they were cloned. And cloning could make possible still more dramatic forms of genetic engineering.
Cloning-for-biomedical-research is also profoundly unethical, as it turns human reproduction into a manufacturing process in the most literal sense: human embryos are created to serve as raw materials for the production of biomedical research supplies. This kind of cloning is today being performed at several scientific labs in the United States, despite the availability of alternative techniques that produce cells of nearly the same scientific and medical value but that require neither the creation nor destruction of human embryos. Cloning-for-biomedical-research also endangers the health and safety of the women called on to undergo dangerous hormone treatments to serve as egg donors. If research cloning is not stopped now, we face the prospect of the mass farming of human embryos and fetuses, and the transformation of the noble enterprise of biomedical research into a grotesque system of exploitation and death.
All in all, the report makes a convincing case that we ought to get out of the business of both human cloning. Because while no one has been paying attention, our scientists have walked us down a very dark alley.
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