Clone Knowns and Unknowns

Ari, your excellent post about cloning ends with a passing reference to the question of safety. I’d like to make two further broad points about the Bryan Caplan-inspired cloning debate, starting off with a few thoughts about safety, and then looking at the overall shape of Kyle Munkittrick’s argument.

In his first post about this cloning kerfuffle, Mr. Munkittrick sidesteps the safety question:

No sane proponent of cloning … advocates the process if it is unsafe. Animal testing must be thorough, rigorous, and successes conclusive and easily repeatable. As with any other process, such as IVF, there will be risks early on, but those risks must first be at or below the level of standard, unassisted pregnancy before experiments on humans are even considered. [Emphases added.]

That sounds very agreeable, but for two problems. First, it ignores the actual history of assisted reproductive technologies — a history of adopting new technologies before their safety is rigorously established. Consider IVF, which Mr. Munkittrick mentions as a precedent. In May 1979, a year and a half after the conception through IVF of Louise Brown, a major federal ethics advisory board noted that there had been “insufficient controlled animal research designed to determine the long-range effects” of IVF; the board called for studies, including “developmental assessments” of the IVF-produced offspring.

In the decades after, of course, the use of IVF to create new human children became enormously widespread — even though today we still have huge pockets of ignorance about its safety, especially regarding the long-term effects of the procedure on the children it is used to conceive. In 2004-05, the Genetics and Public Policy Center (GPPC) undertook a study-of-studies that waded through some 2,500 research papers about IVF, and while it found only a few serious problems among the young children who had been conceived through IVF, it also noted that there wasn’t much information about the health effects over the longer term. To rectify what it called the “gaps in existing knowledge,” the GPPC team called for more research aimed at long-term monitoring of people conceived via IVF. Those knowledge gaps also led the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 to recommend a major prospective longitudinal study that would let researchers “observe and consider health impacts that reveal themselves only years after birth.” (No such study has yet been launched.) Researchers are only now discovering some of the potentially harmful long-term effects of IVF.

All of which is to say that we have an established history of widely adopting new reproductive technologies without understanding thoroughly their effects on health and safety (let alone their moral and social implications).

Establishing the Safety of Cloning

The second problem with just waving off the question of safety was neatly explained in the Bioethics Council’s 2002 report on cloning. Put simply: attempting to make human cloning safe is itself an inherently unsafe undertaking. When people talk about cloning, the Council report said, they just sort of assume

that the safety concern is a purely temporary one that can be allayed in the near future, as scientific advances and improvements in technique reduce the risks to an ethically acceptable level. But this impression is mistaken, for considerable safety risks are likely to be enduring, perhaps permanent. If so, there will be abiding ethical difficulties even with efforts aimed at making human cloning safe.

The reason is clear: experiments to develop new reproductive technologies are necessarily intergenerational, undertaken to serve the reproductive desires of prospective parents but practiced also and always upon prospective children. Any such experiment unavoidably involves risks to the child-to-be, a being who is both the product and also the most vulnerable human subject of the research…. If experiments to learn how to clone a child are ever to be ethical, the degree of risk to that child-to-be would have to be extremely low, arguably no greater than for children-to-be who are conceived from union of egg and sperm. It is extremely unlikely that this moral burden can be met, not for decades if at all….

Even a high success rate in animals would not suffice by itself to make human trials morally acceptable. In addition to the usual uncertainties in jumping the gap from animal to human research, cloning is likely to present particularly difficult problems of interspecies difference…. [T]he magnitude of the risks to the child-to-be of the first human cloning experiments would be unknown and potentially large, no matter how much success had been achieved in animals. There can in principle be no direct experimental evidence sufficient for assessing the degree of such risk.

Can a highly reduced risk of deformity, disease, and premature death in animal cloning, coupled with the inherently unpredictable risk of moving from animals to humans, ever be low enough to meet the ethically acceptable standard set by reproduction begun with egg and sperm? The answer, as a matter of necessity, can never be better than “Just possibly.” Given the severity of the possible harms involved in human cloning, and given that those harms fall on the very vulnerable child-to-be, such an answer would seem to be enduringly inadequate. [All italics in original.]

Although cloning and other assisted reproduction technologies raise special ethical questions, it is worth noting that advocates of other enhancement technologies often make the same baseless assumption that the Council criticizes here — that health and safety are “purely temporary” concerns that will someday be overcome, without acknowledging that even the attempts to make certain enhancements safer can be ethically questionable.

You Don’t Hate Children… Do You?

Moving away from the question of cloning’s safety, there is something more sinister afoot in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — an effort to blame not would-be cloners but opponents of cloning for the problems (social, psychological, etc.) that cloned children may someday face. “By and large,” he writes, it is opponents of cloning

who perpetuate the idea that a cloned child is determined by its genetics, suggest that a cloned child would/should be perceived as lesser than a “normal” child, and help fan the very social stigmas about which they worry. I too, worry about the social pressures and normative stigmas against children born via cloning, and so I work to break and uproot the biases and dogmas that nourish them. I do not use stigmas and social pressures as a kind of “it would be too hard for a cloned child, so shouldn’t we ban the creation of the little abominations” argument.

Cloning is a method of reproduction, a cloned child is not determined by its genetics any more or less than an identical twin, and if a social dogma is a problem you remove the dogma not the victim. [Italics in original.]

If the switcheroo that Mr. Munkittrick is trying to pull off here weren’t so risible, it would be a despicable slander. When the critics of biotechnologies, especially new reproductive techniques, try to understand and explain the moral problems involved in those technologies, it is with the aim of preserving human dignity. When the critics of cloning point out the potential harms of producing children via cloning, they are hardly “fanning social stigmas.” Likewise, when IVF was new, its critics neither directly supported nor indirectly “fanned” stigmas against so-called “test-tube babies”; in fact, they explicitly described sharing the joy of the new parents in welcoming these new children into the world, even while worrying about the implications of the technique.

The same goes for critics of techniques that would give parents-to-be greater control over the genetic makeup of their offspring (e.g., sex selection, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, efforts to make “designer babies” or “savior siblings,” etc.). The aim of these critics has been preventing harms, preventing procreation from becoming entirely an act of parental will and manufacture, and protecting human dignity and equality. Despite what Mr. Munkittrick claims, no responsible critics of cloning have ever suggested that cloned children “should be perceived as lesser than a ‘normal’ child.”

Mr. Munkittrick says he wants to “break and uproot the biases and dogmas” that may put social pressures and stigmas on future cloned children. Here he is misappropriating the language of civil rights battles — language used to criticize discrimination against blacks and Jews and women and homosexuals, language that does not suit this discussion. The debate over cloning is not about unjustified stereotypes or irrational beliefs about a minority population. The debate over cloning is about changing the nature of procreation, and about the profound effects of that change. Mr. Munkittrick seems to want to evade that debate, and so he reflexively resorts to accusations of discrimination.

One thought on “Clone Knowns and Unknowns

  1. I think all of you are missing the boat here. The issue of reproduction itself is a red herring. What matters is the raising of the child and what environment that child grows up it. Do the parents show love and consideration for the child? Is the home environment safe and comfortable for the child? Does the child have access to decent educational opportunities as he or she grows up? Is the child in a loving family?

    These are the real issues surrounding children and thier upbringing, not reproductive methods such as IVF and the like.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *