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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 48.2 (2005) 241-247

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The Ethical Implications of Human Cloning

Department of Government, Harvard University, 1875 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA, 02138.

In this essay, I will consider the ethics of reproductive and therapeutic cloning. But I want also to advance a more general claim: that the cloning issue, and related debates about genetic engineering, will change the way philosophers think about their subject. Much of the debate about cloning and genetic engineering is conducted in the familiar language of autonomy, consent, and individual rights. Defenders of "liberal eugenics" argue that parents should be free to enhance the genetic traits of their children for the sake of improving their life prospects (Agar 1999; Buchanan et al. 2000; Dworkin 2000). Ronald Dworkin, for example argues that there is nothing wrong with the ambition "to make the lives of future generations of human beings longer and more full of talent and hence achievement." In fact, he maintains, the principle of ethical individualism makes such efforts obligatory (Dworkin 2000, p. 452). Many opponents of cloning and genetic engineering also invoke the language of autonomy and rights. For example, Jurgen Habermas (2003) worries that even favorable genetic enhancements may impair the autonomy and individuality of children by pointing them toward particular life choices, hence violating their right to choose their life plans for themselves.

But talk of autonomy and rights does not address the deepest questions posed by cloning. In order to grapple with the ethical implications of cloning and genetic engineering, we need to confront questions largely lost from view in the [End Page 241] modern world—questions about the moral status of nature and about the proper stance of human beings toward the given world. Since questions such as these verge on theology, or at least involve a certain view of the best way for human beings to live their lives, modern philosophers and political theorists tend to shrink from them. But our new powers of biotechnology make these questions unavoidable.

In the United States today, no federal law prohibits human cloning, either for purposes of reproduction or for purposes of biomedical research. This is not because most people favor reproductive cloning. To the contrary, public opinion and almost all elected officials oppose it. But there is strong disagreement about whether to permit cloning for biomedical research. And the opponents of cloning for biomedical research have so far been unwilling to support a separate ban on reproductive cloning, as Britain has enacted. Because of this stalemate, no federal ban on cloning has been enacted.

The Ethics of Reproductive Cloning

I turn first to the ethics of reproductive cloning, and then to cloning for biomedical research. The case for banning human reproductive cloning is not difficult to make, at least for now. Most scientists agree that it is unsafe and likely to lead to serious abnormalities and birth defects. But suppose that, one day, producing a baby through cloning were no more risky than natural reproduction. Many believe—and I agree—that it would still be ethically objectionable. But it is not easy to say why.

The autonomy argument against cloning is not persuasive, for it wrongly implies that, absent a genetically designing parent, children can choose their physical characteristics for themselves. But none of us has a right to choose our genetic inheritance. The alternative to a cloned or genetically enhanced child is not an autonomous one, but a child at the mercy of the genetic lottery.

Some argue that cloning is wrong because it departs from natural, sexual procreation (Kass and Wilson 1998). But this objection also fails to reach the heart of the matter. What makes reproductive cloning morally troubling is that its primary purpose is to create children of a certain kind. In this respect, it is similar to other forms of genetic engineering by which parents seek to choose the traits of their children—sex, eye color, perhaps one day even their intellectual attri-butes, athletic prowess, and musical ability. Although a few eccentric narcissists...