How will history judge cloning?: David Oderberg

David Oderberg finds cloning morally repugnant, but Julian Savulescu sees the birth of a new prejudice - clonism

Last month, Italian scientists announced that they had cloned a horse from a castrated racing champion. Rick Hore-Lacey, an Australian trainer, responded in horror: "If you wanted to completely stuff the racing industry and breeding industry, I couldn't imagine a better scheme... why stop at horses? Why not breed superhumans?" My reaction was different: "Why does it take a racehorse trainer to state the blindingly obvious? Why are most bioethicists and cloning researchers apparently impervious to what strikes so many non-experts as morally repugnant?"

Despite the pious hopes of the racing industry, I predict that within the decade, cloned horses will be commonplace on the racetrack. The commercial pressures will simply be too great. As it is for horses, so it will go for us. We are not yet near the stage in the eugenicist dystopia where, to borrow the title of bioethicist John Harris's book, the engineering of "wonderwomen and supermen" is technically possible or a ticket to wealth and glory. But the pressures to allow cloning, for research and reproduction, are already here.

Severino Antinori announced in 2002 that a cloned human embryo he had implanted in a woman had reached eight weeks' gestation. The world underwent a paroxysm of shock and outrage. But Antinori soon went to ground. Was the claim a hoax? If not, what happened to the unborn child? We will probably never know, and although Antinori may not end up wearing the laurel of "first cloner of a born human", the future is on his side.

Without major action by the world's governments to curb the biotechnology industry, the birth of the first human clone is an inevitability.

Numerous arguments against cloning have been aired. It poses dangers to the mother. It is potentially very dangerous to the child. For every cloned embryo, hundreds if not thousands will have to be destroyed because they are malformed or "surplus to requirements". Cloning also requires a supply of eggs, and obtaining them is dangerous and painful. Already there is an international trade, and women in poor countries are offered financial inducements to provide the eggs the biotech industry needs. Such exploitation can only get worse.

Some opponents of cloning focus on the identity and familial problems that it will bring. People have already cloned dead pets in the deeply mistaken belief that replacing one with a genetic twin is a kind of "resurrection" of their lost animal. Parents have also suggested that a clone would replace a lost child. What identity confusion would be brought by a child's knowing she was her mother's identical twin, or perhaps even her grandmother's? What unbearable expectations would be placed on the child's shoulders?

As compelling as such arguments are, what fundamentally concerns me and other bioethicists who oppose cloning is the malaise at the heart of society that makes such a practice one to contemplate in the first place.

Few supporters take the sorts of harm outlined above seriously enough to regard them as ultimate obstacles. The dominant mindset in bioethics is unashamedly utilitarian, seeing the potential harms of producing clones as outweighed by the supposed benefits to society. Some go as far as to make almost messianic - and deeply irresponsible - promises that the lame will walk and the blind see if only we allow the technology. They often combine this dream with a commitment to so-called procreative autonomy: potential parents should be free to decide whether to clone their children.

Compared with these supposedly limitless benefits, why should it matter whether young human lives are damaged and women exploited, whether access to cloning is only for the rich, whether thousands of embryos are discarded in the process of producing the perfect specimen?

In the meantime, scientists involved in cloning research generally appear to believe that the ultimate value is knowledge for knowledge's sake. Hence for society to inhibit their work means for them a kind of totalitarian imposition of transient social values. And if it is not the latest supposed government attempt to strangle scientific research, then it is society interposing itself unjustifiably between clinician and patient.

Supporters of cloning tirelessly point out the hypocrisy underlying the infamous "yuck factor" that makes people balk at the very idea. In the UK, society allows nearly 200,000 abortions a year. The Government permits babies to be made on Petri dishes and experimentation on the excess.

Thousands of embryos are kept in indefinite cold storage, their survival dependent on the whim of others. So why the sudden attack of scruples?

Here I can agree with the supporters of cloning. They are right to point to the distance society has travelled. We already live in a world where humans are mass produced, created for spare parts, subject to mass storage and mass destruction. Something must have gone wrong long before the advent of Dolly the sheep. For the plain fact is that human life has already been turned into a marketable commodity. Cloning is just the latest extension of this fundamentally perverse attitude. Before we start worrying about cloned racehorses, we should begin to question whether the horses are, in fact, us.

David S. Oderberg is professor of philosophy at Reading University and author of Moral Theory and Applied Ethics , both published by Blackwell.

NPG DEBATE

How will history judge cloning? will be held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on May 12 at 7pm. For tickets, telephone 020 7306 0055 extension 216.

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