The Ethics of Human Cloning

By Zara Hamzah Sendut.

A Brief Background on Cloning

Following the first successful cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996, serious ethical concerns have been raised regarding the future possibility of human reproductive cloning. In 2005, the United Nations adopted its Declaration on Human Cloning to inhibit further pursuit of its development, briefly stating that “all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life” [1] must be prohibited. However, the Declaration has not stopped debate on whether or not human cloning is morally acceptable.

Cloning is a process of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) that involves moving the nucleus of a somatic cell to an enucleated egg [2]. It is important to distinguish between two forms of cloning: “therapeutic” (sometimes known as “research” cloning) and “reproductive” cloning. The former creates a line of embryonic stem cells in petri dishes [3], and is regarded to have great medical potential as a means for organ and tissue development. On the other hand, reproductive cloning sees the embryo implanted directly into a female for gestation [4], and is how Dolly the Sheep was created. Its ability to create a new organism genetically identical to the individual raises public concern, hence the focus of this literature review is on reproductive cloning.

Fig 1: Illustration of SCNT cloning [5]

Current International Regulations

At present, stringent laws have been implemented against the practice of reproductive cloning, with SCNT being outlawed in 70 countries as of 2015 [6]. Several international measures have also been implemented: the Council of Europe’s 1998 Additional Protocol to the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, on the Prohibition of Human Cloning, the World Health Organisation’s 1997 and 1998 resolutions on the implications of cloning towards human health, and the European Union’s 2000 (amended in 2007) Charter of Fundamental Human Rights, to name a few. All three documents base their position against reproductive cloning on the grounds that the deliberate creation of an identical human being is contrary to “human dignity” and thus constitutes a malpractice of biology and medicine [7].

Human Dignity

The term “human dignity” is defined as a trait “concerned with how people feel, think and behave in relation to the worth or value of themselves and others. To treat someone with dignity is to treat them as a being of worth, in a way that is respectful of them as valued individuals” [8]. This definition outlines two main elements of dignity:
(1) It is an inherent human trait
(2) It can only be honoured through society’s respect for individuality

The documents referenced previously (see Current International Regulations) suggest that international bodies take the position that reproductive cloning should be banned on the basis that it corrupts “human dignity”. However, precise explanations why reproductive cloning is incompatible with respect for human dignity are rarely offered. This is exemplified by Leon Kass’ claim in The Wisdom of Repugnance that the visceral reaction of the general public against cloning is significant enough to justify protective measures against it [9]. Defenders of human cloning may argue that although public opinion is important, it cannot be the sole reason behind banning something of great scientific value. Appeasement to the demands of the majority – without proper scientific justification – leads to a slippery slope into majoritarianism; for if policies are solely justified on the basis of fulfilling the will of the people, how can we ensure the protection of minority views?

Additionally, it is said that reproductive cloning offends human dignity as the act of making an exact copy of a person’s genome strips the originator of their autonomy [10]. Those in support of this view follow a classical Kantian approach, and believe dignity is closely linked to the ability to have a unique identity. The case of identical twins dismantles the main ethos of the argument. Genomes do play a role in our development, but can hardly be proven as a determinant in our individuality. Firstly, if uniqueness is responsible for one’s dignity then it must be assumed a twin’s dignity is compromised by having a sibling with an identical genome, depriving them from enjoying the inherent human quality of a unique identity. Many believe this deterministic view of the role of genes is simply wrong [11] as individuality is composed of an infinitely complex range of attributes, whereas genetics play a very minor part in determining who we are as individuals [12]. The life course of a clone is not predetermined to replicate the originator’s – clones are able to autonomously undertake choices for themselves and having an identical genome does not inhibit this liberty. George Wright takes this notion so far as to believe that human cloning could promote human dignity as it “may well serve to highlight, to emphasize, and to set off with greater clarity, quite apart from anyone’s intentions, the mysterious capacities that comprise and express our human dignity” [13].

Instrumentalism

For some, it is not the technical cloning of a genome that is immoral, but rather, the possibility that this practice could be exploited for the parent’s self-benefit. Skeptics argue that people could produce clones for immoral reasons and possibly mistreat them once they are born. In examining Kantian ethics, where the morality of an action is determined by the intention of the act [14], as opposed to its consequences, this argument would prove human cloning to be unethical due to the selfish intentions of the parent. Christof Tannert justifies this by claiming that cloning “only fulfils the selfish interest of a creator” [15], grounding his argument in Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never as a means only” [16]. This showcases the immorality of reproductive cloning, as its technology may empower individuals to instrumentalise humans (the clone) for egotistical purposes, rather than recognising their humanity. However, this is a pessimistic assumption suggesting the misuse of reproductive cloning. Although Kant’s moral principles can certainly be applied to existing humans, it fails to encompass recent technological advancements, providing inadequate guidance in determining whether or not human cloning is morally permissible. Kant’s works date back to 1785 and so can be viewed as ambiguous in its application to new medical technology [17].

Further arguments on instrumentalism are highlighted in Michael Sandel’s The Ethical Implications of Human Cloning, where he believes cloning is morally unacceptable as it massively deviates from the natural sexual reproduction of a human being, acting in opposition to God’s will [18]. Cloning’s primary purpose is to create children of a certain kind, be it genetically altering their traits as means of personal advancement [19], and narcissistic individuals may even aspire to replicate themselves. This desire to manipulate the human genome infringes on our understanding of “children as gifts rather than possessions, or projects of our will, or vehicles for our happiness,” as stated by Sandel. In fact, the European Assembly has taken this so far as to declare human cloning a violation of human rights as it meddles with the natural traits of a child [20].

Conclusion

It is clear that the controversy surrounding the ethics of reproductive cloning is not yet near a conclusion. Conflicting cultural beliefs as well as fears of abuse fuel the debate between scientists, philosophers and the public. However, current international efforts to ban reproductive cloning mean that as far as the regulatory landscape is concerned, proponents of the practice face an uphill battle.

Zara is a first year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at UCL.

REFERENCES

[1] UN General Assembly. (2005). United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning, Available at:https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/541409 [08/03/19]

[2] Wilmut, Ian et al. (2015). “Somatic cell nuclear transfer: origins, the present position and future opportunities”  Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences vol. 370,1680. Available at:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4633995/ [08/03/19]

[3] Nat Rep Stem Cells. (2007). What’s the difference between cloning embryonic stem cells and cloning a new organism?.Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/stemcells.2007.21 [9/10/20]

[4] Bowring, F. (2004). Therapeutic and reproductive cloning: A critique. Second edition. ScienceDirect: Social Science & Medicine, pp.401–409.

[5] Groth, J. (2007). Reproduction and Therapeutic Cloning diagram. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cloning_diagram_english.svg %5B14/03/19%5D

[6] Cohen, H. (2015). How Champion Pony Clones Have Transformed The Game Of Polo [online] Vanity Fair. Available at:https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/07/polo-horse-cloning-adolfo-cambiaso [14/03/19]

[7] Council of Europe Additional Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine, on the Prohibition of Cloning Human Beings. (1998). Available at:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11658044 [15/03/19]

[8] Royal College of Nursing. (2008). The RCN’s definition of dignity. Available at: https://www.rcn.org.uk/-/media/royal-college-of-nursing/…/pub-003298.pdf [22/03/19]

[9] Kass, L. (1997). The Wisdom Of Repugnance. The New Republic. pp.17-26

[10] Williamson, R. (1999)  Human reproductive cloning is unethical because it undermines autonomy: commentary on Savulescu. J Med Ethics, 25:96–97.

[11] Rovane C. (2002). Genetics and personal identity. In: Burley J, Harris J, editor. In A Companion to Genethics. Maiden, Mass: Blackwell Publisher, pp.245–252.

[12] Nuffield Council on Bioethics. (2002). Genetics and Human BehaviorThe Ethical Context. Nuffield Council.

[13] Wright, RG. (2000). Second Thoughts, How Human Cloning Can Promote Human Dignity. Valparaiso Univ Law Rev, 5(1):1-38.

[14] Anscombe, E. (1999). Kantian Ethics. California State University, Sacramento. Available at:

 https://www.csus.edu/indiv/g/gaskilld/ethics/kantian%20ethics.htm [23/03/19]

[15] Tannert, C. (2006) Thou shalt not clone. EMBO Rep 7: 238–240

[16] Kant, I. (1785). Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals [translated by LB White]. New York, NY, USA: Macmillan

[17] Johnson, DG. (2005). Computer ethics. In Frey RG, Wellman CH (eds) A Companion to Applied Ethics. Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell, pp.608–619.

[18] Kass, L.R., and J.Q.Wilson. (1998). The ethics of human cloning.Washington,DC:AEI Press

[19] Sandel, M. (2005). Perspectives In Biology and Medicine, John Hopkins University: John Hopkins University Press.

[20] Langlois, A. (2017). The global governance of human cloning: the case of UNESCO. Palgrave communications, 3, 17019.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Caulfield T. (2003). Human cloning laws, human dignity and the poverty of the policy making dialogue. BMC medical ethics. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC183855/ [10/03/19]

2. National Institute of Health. (2019). U.S National Library of Medicine. Available at:http://https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/hgp/genome [26/03/19]

3. Saxena, S., & Hanna, F. (2015). Dignity – a fundamental principle of mental health care. The Indian Journal of Medical Research, 142(4), pp.355-8.

4. Langlois, A. (2017). The Global Governance of Human Cloning: The Case of UNESCO. Nature Journal. Available at:https://www.nature.com/articles/palcomms201719 [26/03/19]

5. Wilmut, I. (2004). The Moral Imperative For Human Cloning. NewScientist. Available at:https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18124352-600-the-moral-imperative-for-human-cloning/ [08/03/19]

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