Send in the clones

Now here's something you don't see every day: a cogent argument in defense of cloning. Not just therapeutic cloning, the better to produce embryonic stem cells, but full-on human reproductive cloning. And from a bioethicist, no less. Hugh McLachlan of Glasgow Caledonian University, doesn't actually say cloning is a good thing, but he does deftly destroy the arguments against it.

The essay is in the subscription-only section of New Scientist, and I wouldn't even think of violating copyright by re-posting the whole thing (I've written for New Scientist and want to keep that option open). I will do my best to summarize his main points.

First he dismisses the idea that there' something morally wrong about creating replicas. The truth is clones will not be exact replicas -- developmental and environmental factors will ensure the clone is quite different from the original, more different than twins are from each other.

Second is the risk of birth defects, which are quite real at this point when it comes to the animals we have cloned. To that McLachlan says no big deal. Women are allowed to carry children diagnosed with genetic abnormalities, such as Down's Syndrome, and there is a measurable heightened risk associated with in vitro fertilization, but we don't ban that procedure.

Similarly, he waves off the objection that cloning could lead to exploitation of desperate people with the same response -- we allow other forms of assisted reproduction, so why not cloning?

All that leaves us with are the wild scenarios, like armies of clones and state-run factories of designer babies and the like. McLachlan says that would be abhorrent regardless of the technology involved.

So there you have it. Are there any reasonable objections remaining to explain the legal bans on reproductive cloning that are so common -- and uncontroversial -- around the world? "As a bioethicist specialising in reproductive issues," writes McLachlan, "I believe it has more to do with an irrational fear of cloning than any logical reason."

In other words, we seem to have a viscerable, "yuck" response, one I recognize and acknowledge is very real. There is something that runs the ethical subroutines the wrong way.

While there may be no really good reason to clone, I also share McLachlan's doubt that there is a compelling reason to ban the technique. For example, among the most common nightmare scenarios is the specter of the rich growing clones of themselves or their children, keeping the dopplegangers unconscious in the basement, as a back-up supply of vital organs and other body parts. Like McLachlan, I would hope that society would not allow such practices. But that doesn't logically lead to a prohibition on all forms of resprogductive cloning. If some infertile couple really wants to clone themselves, what's the basis for denying them the right?

I suspect that we will have to address this question sooner or later. Probably sooner.


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i've always thought the biggest cause of irrational fear of clones was due to cheesy sci-fi movies. seriously, blame "Multiplicity"

what people really fear are the technologies that, in Hollywood, are often associated with cloning: artificial wombs, accelerated aging, memory transfer, etc. as long as those technologies remain firmly in the realm of science fiction, cloning is little different from other "test tube baby" techniques

a clone will be as human as the "parent". a clone will still have a birth mother that carried it to term and, more importantly, will have his/her own experience, memories, personality, IQ, finger- and retinal-prints

it will also always be significantly younger than the parent (if you clone a 20-year-old, by the time the clone is 20, the parent will be 40)

All that leaves us with are the wild scenarios, like armies of clones and state-run factories of designer babies and the like. McLachlan says that would be abhorrent regardless of the technology involved.

I'm curious, have you ever read Frank Herbert, notably, his Dune novels? Though he does discuss certain ideas relating to cloning in other novels as well, they are by far the most popular ones. Not that I have an irrational fear of gholas, it's just that I can't stop chuckling about it after reading this post.

All that aside, I actually have a friend who would love the ability to be cloned. She is a transexual with a partner that also wants to raise a child. They are pretty much resigned to the notion of adoption, but safe and legal cloning would change that in a heartbeat.

"State run factories of designer babies". We have them right now! They are called "schools" in states where organized religion hijacks the education system.