Who’s Afraid of Human Cloning?, Gregory Pence (Rowman and Littlefield)
This book is a much needed contribution to the debate about human cloning. Amid all the anti-cloning declarations, Pence takes the refreshing, and, up to now, unusual line that there is a positive case to be made for cloning. (The only other pro-human cloning material I have seen is the discussion in Free Inquiry, Vol 17, Summer 1997.)
The book’s title refers directly to one of Pence’s major claims, that is, that a great deal of the general negative reaction to the idea of human cloning is emotional, not rational, and that the chief of these emotions is fear. In order to deal with these fears, he devotes the second chapter to explaining the biology of cloning, and the fourth to clearing up various misconceptions about cloning, such as that it could provide fanatical armies of superclones for mad dictators. Unforgivable!) Here he blames science fiction for generating public fear. (I am not convinced that SF has such great influence. I think that soap operas have, regrettably, far greater hold over the public.) In Chapter nine he tries to deal with the more specific fear of the new and different by arguing that change is not good or bad in itself, and that the alternative is a passive fatalism, a refusal to take control of human destiny. Among the other anti-cloning arguments he looks at are the argument that it would reduce genetic diversity, the argument that it would lead to genetically damaged children, and the religious arguments. To the first of these, he replies that both the frequency of cloning will be too low to have that sort of effect, and that the tendency to revert to the genetic mean would counteract it.
As far as potential harm to the child is concerned, he agrees that the procedure must be shown to be as safe as sexual reproduction, but argues that it need not be safer to be permissible. I do not think he takes the religious arguments against cloning seriously enough, because, I suspect, he does not take seriously the idea that the soul enters the body at the instant of conception. He totally ignores this question in the section in which he argues against the personhood of embryos. However, if this view about the soul is true, it then becomes questionable whether a zygote formed from nuclear transfer rather than sperm-egg union would have a soul. (It should be said that Dolly seems to be as ensouled as any other sheep.) If it does, then each zygote is, on that basis, a human being. Each one that fails to come to term is a lost human being. Weeding out genetically defective zygotes is on a par with killing genetically defective babies.
The rest of the arguments against cloning he discusses are fairly feeble and easily dealt with. It would be a waste of space to cover them here. I must admit that I would like to see some more formidable arguments made against human cloning. It cannot be as easy as this.
Of much greater interest to me are his arguments for permitting human cloning. Pence offers three groups of reasons for permitting human cloning: general principles of liberty, helping the childless, and improving the genetic health of the race. I agree with his conclusions, but I do not think the arguments are as straightforward as he believes.
His first reason is that people should be allowed to reproduce in any way that they choose, as a matter of personal liberty. The problem here is that Pence appeals to two concepts of liberty. One is Mill’s principle that self-regarding actions should be permitted if they cause no harm to others, and the other is a notion of reproductive rights. Any interference with when, how many, or what sort of children we have, is, he believes, an infringement of our reproductive rights. Pence takes these alleged rights so seriously that on page 100 he asserts, astonishingly, that “the essence of democracy is that government is not a reproductive dictatorship.” I really must take another course in basic political philosophy!
I disagree strongly with Pence on the issue of reproductive rights. Even though current law permits people to have children, it is not at all obvious that there is any sort of moral right to reproduce. The only support Pence offers for the idea that there are such rights is an appeal to Mill’s harm principles by declaring that decisions about reproduction are personal decisions. Apparently he thinks that reproduction does not affect anyone except the parents and the child. This is simply not so, as Mill himself recognised.
” …to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society…” On Liberty
Children are born into society. Their existence affects others besides their parents. They depend on others for their support in their early years, and if the parents are incapable of providing such support, society must take up the task. If they are not properly educated they will not be able to function as contributors to society, and may well become a danger to other people. For these sorts of reason, Mill explicitly denied the reproductive freedoms Pence claims to be fundamental.
“The fact itself, of causing the existence of a human being, is one of the most responsible actions in the range of human life. To undertake this responsibility – to bestow a life which may be either a curse or a blessing – unless the being on whom it is to be bestowed will have at least the ordinary chances of a desirable existence, is a crime against that being. And in a country either over-peopled or threatened with being so, to produce children, beyond a very small number, with the effect of reducing the reward of labour by their competition, is a serious offence against all who live by the remuneration of their labour. The laws which, in many countries on the Continent, forbid marriage unless the parties can show that they have the means of supporting a family, do not exceed the legitimate powers of the State: and whether such laws be expedient or not (a question mainly dependent on local circumstances and feelings), they are not objectionable as violations of liberty. Such laws are interferences of the State to prohibit a mischievous act – an act injurious to others, which ought to be a subject of reprobation, and social stigma, even when it is not deemed expedient to superadd legal punishment.” On Liberty
However, my criticism here is not fatal to Pence’s position. The denial of a right to reproduce does not apply against cloning alone. Circumstances that would forbid reproduction by cloning (such as overpopulation, or the inability to care for the child, or the production of a child who would never be able to care for himself) would in also forbid reproduction by IVF or ordinary means. Pence’s argument can be saved, then, by rephrasing it as “in circumstances where ordinary reproduction is permissible, people should be allowed to reproduce in any way that they choose, provided they can afford it.”
Pence’s second reason is that of assisting the childless. He looks at two groups who could be helped. The first group is men with non-viable sperm. Nuclear Somatic Transfer makes it possible for them to have children with whom they have strong genetic connection. Indeed, since all the nuclear DNA would be from the father, the connection would be stronger than with children conceived in the ordinary way. Pence argues that this would mean an even stronger father-son bond than usual, and so would be an additional benefit. (He does not mention that it would not be possible for such men to have daughters, but I think we can safely assume that they would be happy to have any child, and not fuss about the sex.)
The second group is gay and lesbian couples. Here he only solves half the problem. Lesbians can arrange for the genes of one partner to be put into an egg of the other, who then brings it to term. However, Pence does not tell us how cloning could help a pair of gay men. They would still need a woman to provide and gestate the egg. If the nucleus comes from one of the men, it will be the child of that man and the woman. The other man is biologically irrelevant. This would not be much improvement over IVF or the natural way of conceiving the child. Before a child can be the child of both men, we need to find a method for combing their genes in a single nucleus. Of course, even if that can be done, a third party, the obliging woman, will be involved.
The third reason is that of avoiding genetic disease. Pence suggests that cloning could be used to reduce the incidence of hereditary disease without preventing people from having children. If only one parent has a gene for, let us say, Huntingdon’s chorea, they could still have a child by cloning it from the other. Regardless of which parent carries the gene, the woman can bear a child. If all carriers of genetic disease were to follow this policy, eventually there would be no such diseases. Again, there is a problem. If the man was the carrier of the gene, and the child was cloned from the woman, it would not be genetically his child. He has been prevented from having children. However, one could suggest that he would feel a stronger emotional attachment to a child cloned from his wife than to an adopted child, or a child from an anonymous donor.
If both partners were carriers of genetic disease, cloning would have to be done with genetic material from a third party. Would this be better for the couple than adoption?
This sort of improvement is not, I think, foiled by the tendency to revert to the genetic mean, but professional geneticists might disagree. As far as other genetic improvements, such as improving intelligence or eyesight, are concerned, not only would this be a clumsy and slow way to make such improvements, the reversion to the mean would cancel them out unless they were carried out with a totalitarian thoroughness that would obliterate most reproductive rights. Attempts to make such positive changes should, I think wait until we can snip and splice genes in germ-line gene therapy.
Nonetheless, I think even after these criticisms the arguments still retain enough force to make a strong case for permitting human cloning in principle. Pence acknowledges that there will be the need for some regulation while it is still an experimental procedure, and gives useful suggestions as to how that regulation could be done.
There were some parts I was unimpressed with. Pence gives rather too much of the book to the history of embryo research in the USA, and the effects of the restrictions that the religious lobbies have pushed the U.S. Government into placing on it. I found that at times this made for hard going in what is supposed to be a popular book. Most of the seventh chapter is taken up with this, but it also gets an airing in the third chapter. There he gives us a history of the pronouncements of various bioethicists on assisted reproduction. The lessons he wishes us to draw are first, that those who predicted that IVF would lead to doom have been proved wrong, so we should disregard their pronouncements on cloning, and second, that they are at least partly to blame for blocking genetic research and research on embryos. This struck me as more tub-thumping than philosophy. Checking the track records of prophets is a wise move, but for moral philosophers it is their arguments that must be examined.
Pence has not solved all the moral problems that the prospect of human cloning can raise, but his book is a good defence of cloning written in a (mostly) accessible way. It should certainly be taken seriously.