It's time to address ethical dilemmas of human cloningBy Jim Trageser
This article was originally published in the Winter 2002 issue of Turbula.
News reports now indicate that the first cloned human being will be born some time early in the new year. While prominent and respected scientific experts have cast doubt on the veracity of the doctor making the cloning claim, the reality is becoming clear that if not now, then the first cloned human will be created soon whether for an infertile couple or laboratory research.
The technology exists, and we aren't going to be able to put this genie back in the bottle.
So the question then becomes what to do about human cloning. The issue has now changed from whether it will happen to how we will react.
Because truth be told, we've spent far more time and energy on the dual tactics of rushing pell mell into new technology and simultaneously hiding from it than we have in engaging the ramifications of that technology.
Cloning bans, no matter how well-intentioned at maintaining a sense of respect for human life, will not work in today's world. Cloning knowledge is too diffused throughout the scientific and medical communities; the equipment to conduct it too commonplace.
More importantly, though, bans avoid the more important issues of human dignity and value that cloning knowledge raises.
Of late, supporters for unlimited, unregulated human cloning have had the upper hand in public debates. What once seemed the kind of horror tale featuring Nazis or space aliens, human cloning is now being touted as mankind's blessed salvation.
Of course, the rhetoric has changed from that in the film "The Boys From Brazil." Rather than a diabolical method for creating a race of little fuehrers, cloning is now advertised as a benefit for the all of us the greatest medical advance since penicillin, guaranteed to make us all live longer and look better.
But if with this new spin, human clones are no longer monsters to be feared, then what or who exactly are they?
Are they members of our family, or sideshow freaks? Our brothers and sisters, or lab rats and guinea pigs?
Will clones be regarded as one of "us," or will we assign clones the status of outsider and refer to clones as "them"?
For that's what the issue comes down to: Are clones to be people?
At the moment, their prospects for legal personhood don't look good. In fact, the prospects for merely having an open, honest debate on the personhood of clones aren't all that bright swinging perilously close to the polarizing issues surrounding the already contentious abortion debate.
In fact, the same issue is at the very heart of both the cloning and abortion discussions: What is a human being?
In the abortion debate, the question of when human life begins is colored by the impact pregnancy has on the mother. While fertilization is unquestionably a quantum event, for many the assignation of personhood has to be coupled to the carrying mother's rights.
Will that hold true in an extrauterine environment?
If we hold off on declaring an incipient life "human" until the second or third trimester, or even natural birth, in order to protect the mother's competing rights, at what point will a human cloned in a laboratory be considered human?
The pro-cloning forces are all too aware of this potential minefield. And so almost every argument in favor of cloning concerns itself with the use of very young clones for medical research. The kindly, avuncular Marcus Welby types the pro-cloning forces trot out for the media go to great lengths to reassure the public that cloning is not to be used for reproduction that the clones will be no more than embryos to be used for their valued stem cells.
Why should there be such a fear of cloning for reproduction? Cloning technology isn't that far removed from many of the techniques used now to allow infertile couples to conceive their own child.
Society's initial unease with "test tube" babies has been mitigated by the positive spin the multi-billion dollar fertility industry can afford to blow the media's way. The question of what is human life that at first dogged the fertility industry has been largely swept aside by the glowing images of formerly childless couples holding their bouncing babies.
But the tens of thousands of unwanted embryos left over after fertility treatments conclude are likely to be dwarfed by the millions about to be created in cloning laboratories across the globe will the sheer numbers of extrauterine human embryos be enough to instigate a debate on their potential humanity?
Or will the potential profits and medical advances available to the rest of us so dull our consciences that we simply refuse to even ask the question?
And that question is important, because if we won't even consider the possibility of whether embryos are human, then how can we seriously claim to define when personhood begins?
If not at fertilization, then when? Since there is no fertilization per se in cloning, the question of personhood becomes even more murky.
If those who favor legal abortion become uncomfortable talking about second- and third-trimester abortions which, after all, eliminate a foetus that is increasingly indistinguishable from an infant how will cloning supporters feel about discussing the humanity of laboratory embryos?
Right now, as cloning moves forward to provide researchers the stem cells that hold promise for all kinds of medical treatments, we're talking about new lives that hardly resemble a fully developed human being at all. Our squeamishness can be more easily contained when we're talking about a microscopic zygote or barely discernible embryo. How will we react when the clones are allowed to live longer in order to provide specific tissue samples or even fully developed organs?
Will they be people then, or simply another crop to harvest?
Human beings cloned to provide sterile couples with a baby at least have an opportunity to eventually grow up and decide for themselves whether they have intrinsic value, their own personhood. In that, they are no different from any of the rest of us many, perhaps most, of whom are conceived on a lark, in a moment of uncontrolled passion, or due to a forgotten pill.
Those cloned to exist as laboratory fodder are denied even that right. Their brief, short lives will exist at all only to provide the rest of us with the raw materials for medical treatment. A new kidney perhaps, or remission from Parkinson's disease.
The irony is that while the animal rights movement gains strength daily from the realization that testing shampoos and soaps for a multi-billion dollar grooming industry shouldn't involve animal suffering, we now propose to turn our own offspring into silent guinea pigs.
Christopher Reeve has understandably taken for himself the crusade of seeing human research cloning legally sanctioned by the government. With so many medical researchers promising cures for trauma paralysis and other maladies, the desire of those suffering from them for relief is something we can all sympathize with far more readily than we can identify with a microscopic life form that can hardly be said to look human.
In fact, the greatly publicized medical promise of using human embryos as the sources for highly desired stem cells has already led to many of the fertility industry's abandoned embryos finding second careers as medical test subjects.
And of course Reeve is only the public face of the pro-cloning forces, his tragedy milked to gain the public's sympathy and political backing for cloning-friendly legislation.
But when you get beyond the public spin given cloning and take a closer look at who is backing it, the why becomes quite clear There's a lot of money to be made in finding cures for the various maladies that afflict human beings. If we are indeed to be using ourselves as the ultimate research subject, and if cloning can keep costs down and provide the necessary raw materials, well, then we can't let a little ethical squeamishness stand in the way of the quarterly profit reports.
The same highly profitable pharmaceutical industry that has fought the release of generic versions of its products to Third World nations wracked by AIDS is quite interested in the use of cloned embryos in its research labs. The medical promise, you see.
Which isn't so different from the quickly receding nightmare of cloning. While the doomsday vision of "Boys From Brazil" envisioned clones as tools for bringing about a dark dream, even the present (quasi) utopian version sees cloned humans as things to be manipulated for our own purpose: whether guinea pigs for research, or even a crop to be harvested for their organs.
But whatever they are, the cloned humans aren't seen as full people.
So the question facing the rest of us is what to do with the cloned humans. Are we to have two classes those designated for reproduction and granted legal protection (at least after birth), and subhumans designated for the lab?
And if we find that prospect morally appalling, should we not then ask ourselves if it is really any different from the present legal framework governing unborn human life where a foetus wanted by her parents but killed by a random bullet is a victim whose survivors can litigate on her behalf, but an unwanted foetus killed in a clinic is a statistic?
The cloning debate is likely to be uncomfortable for most of us, because questions like the above are going to keep cropping up. We can't confront the inconsistencies of the various positions on cloning without facing up to our existing ethical conflicts regarding reproductive law.
What we can hope as we move through this issue is that we can at least keep public policy from responding solely to money. The drug and medical companies behind the push for research cloning know there are billions to be made in offering miracle cures. And the university researchers exist at the behest of their corporate sponsors research grants follow headlines, and right now the headlines are to be found in cloning.
But even greater than those potential profits is the very real truth that our humanity still matters. That our existence has value.
And that by extension, so should the existence of all human beings whether conceived or cloned.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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