Clones of Contention


In the 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil, Nazi doctor Josef Mengele produces a bunch of baby Hitlers and places them with families scattered around the world. To maximize the chances that one of the clones will become a suitable leader, Mengele tries to recreate the Fuhrer's childhood (by killing off the fathers, among other things), but he's foiled by aging Nazi hunter Ezra Liebermann.

At the end of the movie, Liebermann stops a Jewish militant from tracking down and killing the clones. He understands something that most members of Congress seem to have missed: Biology is not destiny. The person you are is a product not just of your genes but of your environment and the choices you make. Otherwise, identical twins would be literally identical: the same person, thinking the same thoughts.

Politicians seem to be imagining something like that when they contemplate human cloning, which helps explain the House's recent lopsided vote to ban any form of it. Trying to illuminate his colleagues' thinking, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said, "The idea of cloning is very terrifying because it is creating a copy of another human being."

Actually, it is creating an embryo with the same genetic code as another human being. Unless you think Liebermann was wrong to spare the Hitler clones, you'll have to admit it's not the same thing.

True, human cloning is an idea that takes some getting used to. The day of the House vote, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart joked about a children's book entitled Heather Is Her Own Mommy. But does the weirdness of human cloning automatically make it a "horror," as The New York Times casually called it?

I'm not so sure. In a recent issue of The New Republic, ethicists Leon Kass and Daniel Callahan say human cloning "threatens individuality" and "confuses identity." These objections seem valid only if you believe that you are your DNA.

Kass and Callahan also argue that human cloning is "the harbinger of much grizzlier eugenic manipulations to come," that permitting it "means condoning a despotic principle: that we are entitled to design the genetic makeup of our children." But it doesn't seem hard to draw a line between allowing a couple to raise the clone of a dead relative, say, and allowing them to create a child with an extra arm or with eyes in the back of his head.

Kass and Callahan's most compelling objection is that human cloning poses "enormous risks of bodily and developmental abnormalities." If that turns out to be true, human cloning might indeed constitute "unethical experimentation on the child-to-be," but that doesn't make it wrong in principle.

Even if there are legitimate ethical questions about producing the twin of someone who has already lived, are they the sort of questions that justify a legal prohibition? Tellingly, Kass and Callahan concede that "no government agency is going to compel a woman to abort a clone, and there would be understandable outrage were she fined or jailed before or after she gave birth."

If human cloning is so horrible–subjecting researchers to fines of up to $1 million and prison terms of up to 10 years under the bill approved by the House–it's hard to see why someone who commissions and participates in it ought to escape punishment. Yet Kass and Callahan conclude that the impracticality of enforcing a ban on giving birth to a clone makes it necessary to prohibit human cloning in medical research as well, which is what the House has voted to do.

In addition to stopping a billionaire egomaniac from raising his own twin, the bill would stop researchers from producing cloned embryos for therapeutic purposes. Stem cells taken from these microscopic embryos could be used to create replacements for damaged organs and tissue, potentially curing a wide range of disabling and deadly diseases. Using embryos cloned from patients would avoid the problem of rejection, because the cells would be an exact genetic match.

For those who believe that embryos are tiny people from the moment of conception, it does not matter whether the embryos are cloned. The problem is that stem cell research destroys them.

Kass and Callahan, by contrast, are worried that cloned embryos might not be destroyed, that they might be implanted in uteruses and become babies. Is that really such a terrifying prospect?