Human Cloning Hysteria Breaks Out Again


Earlier this week, fertility specialist Paniyiotis Zavos claimed to have created 14 cloned human embryos, of which he implanted 11 in the wombs of four women. None of the alleged clones took. His efforts will apparently air as a documentary on the Discovery Channel. Zavos' stunt does not help people who want eventually to include safe human cloning in the armamentarium of fertility treatments. The Guardian provides some relevant comments from researchers:

"This whole affair shows a complete lack of responsibility," said Professor Azim Surani, Marshall-Walton professor of physiology and reproduction at the University of Cambridge.

"If true, Zavos has again failed to observe the universally accepted ban on human cloning, which was agreed because most of the resulting embryos from such animal experiments are abnormal. This is yet another episode designed to gain maximum publicity without performing rigorous animal experiments or presenting it for peer review in a scientific journal."

Professor Robert Winston, emeritus professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London, was blunter. "I do not know of any credible evidence that suggests Dr Zavos can clone a human being. This seems to be yet another one of his claims to get repeated publicity," he said.

Professor Wolf Reik, head of the epigenetics and chromatin programme at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, said a successful clone would be no different from a naturally conceived identical twin. "But there are important ethical issues here that must be considered. For example, cloning a child who has died will create a genetically identical person; but it will not be the same child. This is most certainly not a way of bringing people back from the dead," he said.

In fact, no peer-reviewed report of the successful creation of a cloned human embryo has yet  been published in any scientific journal. Many object that human reproductive cloning is immoral. For example, President Barack Obama has declared, "It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society." The United Nations has passed resolutions urging the adoption of an international convention banning reproductive cloning.

But it is not at all clear why safe reproductive cloning would be unethical. After all, such a clone would essentialy be a delayed twin.

The folks over at the Women's Bioethics Project (WBP) have published a thorough deconstruction of anti-cloning laws around the world. As the WBP report points out:

The United Nations general assembly approved a declaration to ban human cloning on March 8, 2005; 59 countries independently prohibit reproductive cloning; and 97 percent of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (which accounts for 84 percent of the world's GDP) ban reproductive cloning (Hayes 2008.) While the United States is one of the few developed countries, along with Russia, that has not enacted a nation-wide ban on the practice, 15 states already prohibit reproductive cloning (NCSL 2008) and bills to ban the practice have been introduced in both houses of Congress.

The WBP report also looks at how anti-cloners rely on the ethically fuzzy concept of "human dignity" to justify cloning bans. The WBP cites the analysis of University of Maryland law professor David Hyman:

Assessments of human dignity are quite subjective, with considerable variation temporally, chronologically, geographically, and culturally.  Social class, religion, wealth, and the degree of industrialization matter as well. There is also a considerable degree of individual variation. Consider whether human dignity is enhanced, diminished, or unaffected by blue laws, capital punishment, cloning, decriminalization of drug possession, gay marriage, genetically modified food, gun control, legalized prostitution, partial-birth abortion, physician-assisted suicide, prohibition of hate speech, school prayer, school vouchers, state lotteries, and three-strikes laws. Would Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, Zell Miller, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and the Pope have the same answers to that question?

Even if people agree that human dignity is the appropriate standard for assessing policy initiatives, they are only likely to agree on what is dignified for matters at the extreme end of the policy distribution (e.g., incest, slavery, and cannibalism). On matters that fall closer to the mean (e.g., organ transplantation, cloning, affirmative action, tobacco regulation, church-state relationships, hate crimes, private gun ownership, and euthanasia), the preferences of individual citizens, groups, and nations vary tremendously.

These preference variations are exceedingly important, since actual behavior (including voting) maps neatly onto these expressed preferences. Given this diversity of preferences, and the inherent subjectivity of those preferences, it is unlikely that we, as a nation, will be able to settle on a single notion of human dignity, let alone be able to apply the resulting standard to a particular policy issue in a way that puts it permanently to rest.

The WBP analysis of cloning and human dignity concludes:

Before we support a worldwide ban on cloning, we need to carefully examine the ethical language used and be sure it reflects the common good. By adopting vague ethical language we are making ourselves vulnerable to manipulation by those with a broader policy agenda than just banning reproductive cloning.  We must watch carefully as human dignity is employed to ban human reproductive cloning, for it can unwittingly set the stage for banning other reproductive technologies such as IVF, genetic testing and genetic modification as well as therapeutic cloning.  

Sounds right to me.