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The successful cloning of an adult sheep, announced in Scotland this past
February, is one of the most
dramatic recent examples of a scientific discovery becoming a public issue.
During the last few months,
various commentators -- scientists and theologians, physicians and legal
experts, talk-radio hosts and
editorial writers -- have been busily responding to the news, some calming
fears, other raising alarms
about the prospect of cloning a human being. At the request of the President,
the National Bioethics
Advisory Commission (NBAC) held hearings and prepared a report on the
religious, ethical, and legal
issues surrounding human cloning. While declining to call for a permanent ban
on the practice, the
Commission recommended a moratorium on efforts to clone human beings, and
importance of further public deliberation on the subject.
An interesting tension is at work in the NBAC report. Commission members were
well aware of "the
widespread public discomfort, even revulsion, about cloning human
beings." Perhaps recalling the images
of Dolly the ewe that were featured on the covers of national news magazines,
they noted that "the impact
of these most recent developments on our national psyche has been quite
remarkable." Accordingly, they
felt that one of their tasks was to articulate, as fully and sympathetically
as possible, the range of concerns
that the prospect of human cloning had elicited.
Yet it seems clear that some of these concerns, at least, are based on false
beliefs about genetic influence
and the nature of the individuals that would be produced through cloning.
Consider, for instance, the fear
that a clone would not be an "individual" but merely a "carbon
copy" of someone else -- an automaton of
the sort familiar from science fiction. As many scientists have pointed out,
a clone would not in fact be an
identical copy, but more like a delayed identical twin. And just as identical
twins are two separate people
-- biologically, psychologically, morally and legally, though not genetically
-- so, too, a clone would be a
separate person from her non-contemporaneous twin. To think otherwise is to
embrace a belief in genetic
determinism -- the view that genes determine everything about us, and that
environmental factors or the
random events in human development are insignificant.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that genetic determinism is false.
In coming to understand the
ways in which genes operate, biologists have also become aware of the myriad
ways in which the
environment affects their "expression." The genetic contribution to
the simplest physical traits, such as
height and hair color, is significantly mediated by environmental factors
(and possibly by stochastic events
as well). And the genetic contribution to the traits we value most deeply,
from intelligence to compassion,
is conceded by even the most enthusiastic genetic researchers to be limited
It is difficult to gauge the extent to which "repugnance" toward
cloning generally rests on a belief in
genetic determinism. Hoping to account for the fact that people
"instinctively recoil" from the prospect of
cloning, James Q. Wilson wrote, "There is a natural sentiment that is
offended by the mental picture of
identical babies being produced in some biological factory." Which
raises the question: once people learn
that this picture is mere science fiction, does the offense that cloning
presents to "natural sentiment"
attenuate, or even disappear? Jean Bethke Elshtain cited the nightmare
scenarios of "the man and woman
on the street," who imagine a future populated by "a veritable army
of Hitlers, ruthless and remorseless
bigots who kept reproducing themselves until they had finished what the
historic Hitler failed to do:
annihilate us." What happens, though, to the "pity and terror"
evoked by the topic of cloning when such
scenarios are deprived (as they deserve to be) of all credibility?
Richard Lewontin has argued that the critics\' fears -- or at least, those
fears that merit consideration in
formulating public policy -- dissolve once genetic determinism is refuted. He
criticizes the NBAC report
for excessive deference to opponents of human cloning, and calls for greater
public education on the
scientific issues. (The Commission in fact makes the same recommendation, but
unimpressed.) Yet even if a public education campaign succeeded in
eliminating the most egregious
misconceptions about genetic influence, that wouldn=t settle the matter.
People might continue to express
concerns about the interests and rights of human clones, about the social and
moral consequences of the
cloning process, and about the possible motivations for creating children in
Interests and Rights
One set of ethical concerns about human clones involves the risks and
uncertainties associated with the
current state of cloning technology. This technology has not yet been tested
with human subjects, and
scientists cannot rule out the possibility of mutation or other biological
damage. Accordingly, the NBAC
report concluded that "at this time, it is morally unacceptable for
anyone in the public
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Cloning, Molecular biology, Genetics, Biotechnology, Human cloning, Somatic cell nuclear transfer, Molecular cloning, Clone, Ethics of cloning, Clonaid
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