Thinking through the ethics of cloning

Dr. James F. Drane

Rusell B. Roth Professor of Clinical Bioethics
Edinboro, University of Pennsylvania (Emeritus)

Cloning turns every thinking being into something of a moral philosopher.

Everyone has an opinion on whether or not it is right to clone another human being. The idea of asexually producing multiple copies of genetically identical organisms, all descended from a common ancestor, creates in most people a negative moral reaction. Why would anyone want to do such a thing is the response most often heard by pollsters. But most people also recognize that once human cloning becomes scientifically possible, it is only a matter of time until it is done. Should we then just sit back and accept the inevitable no matter how repulsive it seems or what the consequences may be? Or should we begin to try to formulate standards for making morally defensible decisions about this new scientific possibility?

The initial negative reaction of most people to human cloning is not unimportant. The 2500 year old philosophical discipline called Ethics, and the newer discipline called Bioethics, both take the emotional responses of normally developed human beings into account when trying to formulate answers to tough ethical questions. Most people instinctually sense that procreation resulting from an expression of love and within the context of a family is something good that should be protected. Most everyone believes that sexual procreation should not be replaced by some laboratory technology. All cultures have some ethical standard like the Fourth Commandment (Honor your father and your mother) or the Sixth (Do not commit adultery) which gives expression to this basic ethical sense and which holds up for emulation what today we call family values.

But instinctual reactions and ancient ethical norms are not all there is to ethics. Ancient texts cannot be used out of context as quick solutions to contemporary technical problems without violating the texts and fooling ourselves. And, although our initial reaction to a new scientific possibility may be repulsive, examples abound of changes which initially caused a negative reaction and later came to be accepted because they produced important good consequences. One of the roles of the ethicist, or moral philosopher, is to consider all aspects of an issue; consequences and circumstances, purposes and possibilities. Ethics means thinking hard and long about issues and not relying exclusively either on important verses for scripture or important initial instinctual responses.

Today's Ethics Experts

Many people today qualify as practitioners of serious ethical reflection. Most priests, preachers, and rabbis consider themselves ethicists. Journalists also do, especially editorial page journalists. Even electronic journalists turn into ethicists after they retire (e.g. Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley). Doctors act as major ethicists in our culture, telling us daily on TV and in the newspapers how to live, how to die, how to raise children, what to eat, and on, and on. Every discipline in fact produces its own ethicists. Readers of editorial pages will not be surprised by the many "expert" ethical commentaries on today's big ethical issue of cloning.

Religious ethicists

The greatest number of ethics experts comes out of religion. Vatican ethicists have already taken a strong stand against cloning thereby continuing a sad history of negative overreaction to scientific discovery. Bishop Sgreccia declared that it is wrong to alter an animal species, let along a human being. Another spokesman talked about cloning as a violation of the integrity of marriage. Vatican experts reflect the Pope's views and he has already rejected any use of technology which interferes with sexual procreation within marriage or makes it likely that human embryos would be destroyed.

Catholic theologians may use different background assumptions from the Pope and their opinions tend to be more nuanced. Some see genetic technologies as an expression of human creativity and human creativity as a good because it reflects God's creativity. Making new plants and animals by genetic interventions is widely defended theologically but still most Catholic moralists draw a line at human cloning.

Protestant ethicists tend to look for insights from scripture. Scripture however does not provide specific answers to modern problems. It can provide general ethical direction which then has to contend with contradictory direction coming from different texts. The book of Genesis for example provides us with two different creation stories. In the first (Genesis, chapter one), man is protrayed as having dominion over all creation. By exercising dominion, man would be acting in God's image. This story might support genetic technologies and even cloning. In the second creation story (Genesis, chapter two), man's role is more that of steward. He is to care for creation and protect it. Now the ethical direction would be just the opposite and cloning might be considered a violation of stewardship. Scripture is an important source of ethical direction for all Judeo-Christian religious people, but since scripture provides no specific answers to contemporary scientific problems, biblical ethicists have to think through the issue of cloning very much like all others do.

Jewish ethicists tend to look for ethical direction both from scripture and from the Talmud (Jewish law and tradition). Rabbi Moses Tendler, a professor of medical ethics, looked at cloning using the talmudic metaphor of the bee which offers both honey and a sting. Are we, he asked, at the point on the tree of knowledge where we'd rather give up the honey to avoid the sting? Other rabbis saw no reason to criticize or even to regulate cloning.

Scientists as ethicists

Most religious ethicists consider human cloning to be wrong. The most permissive among them urge great caution in using this kind of genetic manipulation. Science however has its own ethicists and generally they take the opposite view. Scientists tend to focus on the positive benefits of cloning and discount the dangers. They tend to take predictions of catastrophic consequences seriously. Ethical criticism from outside science they tend to see as unenlightened and/or prejudicial. Scientists can be trusted to do their own ethics, they claim. They even have their own ethical heroes, scientific saints of sorts (Galileo, Bacon).

Science's ethicists emphasize the possibilities of conquering disease and infertility. They focus on new information about cell functioning which will aid in the fight against cancer. Cloning might also protect against certain genetic diseases which result from combining genes from both parents. But science has its own history of ethical scandals and the idea that people should just let scientists do what they think is right, convinces almost no one. Dr. James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, agreed that this issue could not be left to science.

Business ethicists

If science doesn't like ethical restrictions, neither does business. Spokespersons for business interests (in the Economist) lined up with scientists against any talk about restricting cloning. Business interests are more concerned about animal than about human cloning. They do not want the business possibilities of cloning animals to be ruined by worries about human cloning.

Literary ethicists

Literature, like religion, is an important source of ethics. Novelists and poets provide ethical viewpoints and several have already taken very critical stands on cloning. Mary Shelly's novel "Frankenstein" (1818) was the first such negative evaluation. Shelly's Frankenstein was intelligent and articulate, but deeply anguished by his unnatural origin. In this story, he goes mad with grief and murders the doctor who made him. "The Boys from Brazil" was just as frightening a take on cloning.

Government ethicists

Through the influence created by its funding, the government has for years required strict ethical controls over genetic research and therapy involving human beings. Immediately after the recent cloning news, President Clinton temporarily banned the use of federal money for human cloning experiments. Not long after the President's decree, one Republican Congressman (Representative Vernon Elders of Michigan) proposed a ban on human cloning because it might create a negative reaction to animal cloning and thereby hurt business. No telling what congress will do, but even if the government prohibits cloning, it sitll leaves the marketplace as an alternative base for cloning activities.


Bioethicists are relativeliy new players on the broad stage of ethical reflection. Bioethics has its own background theories and abstract principles and paradigm stories, but it moves from these broad ethical perspectives to concrete norms and rules and policies. What we expect from bioethics is less inspiration and more practical guidelines for what we can and cannot do in science and medicine.

Bioethicists have been at work in the area of genetics since shortly after the discovery of DNA. They make a distinction between somatic cell and germline cell genetic interventions. The former refers to treatments of genetic disease by introducing a properly functioning gene into one person in whom that gene is defective. It focuses on diseases like Tay Sachs, Lesch Nyham, and Sickle Cell Anemia. Somatic cell therapy affects only the person suffering from a recognized genetic disease. It is distinguished from germline therapy which involves changes in an ovum or sperm and therefore involves gene alterations which will be passed down to other generations.

Here is an example of bioethical standards or guidelines for somatic cell gene interventions on human beings.

  1. Genetic intervention can be used only for the treatment of a serious genetic disease.
  2. No alternative, non-genetic therapy, is available.
  3. The genetic defect must be clearly identified.
  4. Extensive animal studies must precede any human interventions in order to support claims of safety and effectivenes.
  5. All therapuetic interventions must be preceded by elaborate informed consent procedures.
  6. Consent forms and strategies must be approved by an institutional ethics committee.

Cloning would be an example of germline genetic intervention. It is more difficult to get approval for germline interventions for many reasons, including the fact that germline cell alterations are difficult to transfer and therefore have limited effectiveness. (It took hundreds of tries to clone Dolly). Germline ethical standards, added to the above mentioned ones, are more stringent:

  1. The genetic science must be proven and the proposed intervention must have a reasonable success rate.
  2. The germline intervention must hold the promise of substantial usefulness.
  3. No intervention is ethically permitted which alters fundamental human characteristics; e.g. freedom, intelligence, and relational capacity.
  4. No intervention is ethically permitted which might create a risk to the gene pool or to genetic diversity.

All the presently in-place bioethical guidelines would militate against approval of cloning at the present time. The recent cloning of sheep and monkeys make successful human cloning almost a certainty and overcomes an objection based on lack of success. But would human cloning offer substantial usefulness? Dr. Ian Wilmut, who cloned the lamb, expressed opposition to human cloning. People are not thinking carefully, he said, and he could see no useful application of his cloning techniques to humans.

Dr. Wilmut's ethical reservations about human cloning might also be based on criterion 3. Human cloning certainly alters the basic relationship between the cloned person and the "parent" (genetic ancestor). And any extensive use of cloning would violate guideline 4 by creating a risk to the gene pool and gentic diversity.

The present limited therapeutic applications of cloning make it likely that cloning would be done in order to make design changes in the human species (eugenics). But how do we decide what changes in the human species are appropriate? What sort of persons should we be? Should we enhance the human condition? Should we become our own creators? These important issues explain why Dr. James Watson (the discoverer of DNA) couldn't justify leaving ethical questions about cloning to scientists.

Medical science and genetic technology now force all of us to face the basic questions: What is human life? What is a child? Who is a parent? What is a family? What is the purpose of having children? Is there a God? Are we our own creators or stewards of God's creation? No one has the definitive answer to any of these questions. We humans must go on questioning. The struggle for meaning is never over. Only religious and secular fundamentalists are sure they have the answers. Certain things, however, we could all agree about. Human beings are creative. Inevitably we intervene into nature with our tools and technologies. But we ought to respect nature's structure and go slowly into an area so delicate as human cloning.

Some personal thoughts

Bioethicists like all other professional moralists have to start thinking much more seriously about cloning now. Human cloning has not been given much attention because it was not considered possible and too many other problems needed solutions. All this has changed.

Bioethics can start by clearing the table of obvious mistakes and false problems. Cloning produces a genetic copy but not a xeroxed person. A genetic clone is a different person who will have a different environment, different opportunities, different luck, different choices, a different spirit or soul. A cloned Einstein could wind up using his superior intelligence to create a world wide drug ring. Free will is not cloned. Environment, especially family environment, is still a major influence on the persons we become. A cloned child may wind up being very different from the sibling from whom he or she was cloned just because of the influence of place in the family. Clones will look alike, but they won't have the same experience and therefore will be different. We know this to be true from what we know about monozygotic twins who are nature's clones.

On the other hand, any serious ethical consideration of cloning has to take into consideration the fact that human beings have a capacity for both good and evil. Neither possibility can be discounted. As genetic science advances many goods from cloning may emerge. But even objective goods can be undermined by evil human attitudes and dispositions. Narcissistic personalities could use cloning to indulge their sick egocentric selves or to engineer their own versions of immorality. Envious and greedy people would use cloning to make money. Power crazy types would use cloning to increase domination over others. The human potential for evil is real and cannot be left out of considerations about the ethics of cloning.

Would it be too naive to suggest that scientists and theologians and bioethicists start working together to develop ethical guidelines for cloning rather than just banning the whole idea? After all, the founder of genetics was a Catholic priest. Father Gregor Mendel discovered genes and his research in genetics is still valid nearly 150 years later. There was no inherent conflict then between ethics, religion, and genetic science. The lesson of Gregor Mendel is that religion and genetics are not incompatible. Instead of suspicion or prejudice or knee-jerk negative reactions, couldn't genetic scientists and bioethicists and theologians start out by developing ethical standards ordinary people would feel comfortable with?

Lest this sound too mushy, a Presidential Ethics Commission is already formed and promises to provide some recommendations in 90 days. Hopefully that commission will be aware of history. Mistakes have been made in the past. Horrible evils have taken place. Millions of innocent persons have lost their lives to superficial and myopic theories about how the human species should be genetically improved. We are too ignorant about how the tightly interrelated elements in the ecosystem operate to climb aboard eugenic proposals. It would be an insult to the millions of innocent victims of Nazi eugenic programs if those who set the ethical standards for genetic research and interventions could not at some point say no.