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Should We Really Fear Reproductive Human Cloning?

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In his remarks lifting the ban on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research last month, President Obama took pains to distinguish research cloning from reproductive cloning. According to the President, "the use of cloning for human reproduction" is "dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society," and he promised to ensure that "our government never opens the door" to such a practice. What the President did not do was to explain precisely why he opposes reproductive cloning. Is his opposition solely based upon the health risks that cloning techniques, such as somatic cell nuclear transfer, may impose upon children born as a result of this novel technology? Or does he believe that human reproductive cloning ought to be prohibited even if it could someday be rendered as safe--or safer--than other forms of procreation? To some who oppose reproductive cloning, as polls consistently suggest that a majority of Americans still do, these questions may seem purely academic: As long as our society adopts the right policy, one might argue, why concerns ourselves with whether we are doing so for the wrong reasons or even for conflicting reasons? The reality of the legislative debates preceding state cloning bans--from California's 1997 prohibition to the statute enacted last week in Montana--is that much antagonism to reproductive cloning appears to reflect an inchoate, emotional and often illogical repugnance to the practice on the part of lawmakers, rather than well-reasoned and well-articulated opposition. What is actually needed is an unbiased assessment of both the perils and promises of cloning humans.

Most evidence suggests the reproductive human cloning, at the present time, would pose serious dangers to any children so produced. The frequency of birth defects and long-term health complications in cloned animals remains exceedingly high. These genetic disorders likely result from programming errors due to what biologists call "imprinting," and arise when the double sets of maternally- or paternally-derived genes in the embryo "speak" simultaneously. While scientists are currently working on reprogramming techniques, which would prevent these errors, the feasibility of such efforts remains largely uncertain. What is far clearer is that, if society's only objection to reproductive cloning is the danger that the technology poses to the offspring, then research to render human cloning safe should be pursued vigorously.

The most obvious benefit of reproductive cloning--if it could be rendered safe--would be as a source of transplantable tissues and organs. I certainly do not mean to suggest that cloned children would have any fewer human rights or should be treated any differently than non-cloned children. Quite the contrary: Much as children conceived in "test tubes" are morally and legally indistinguishable from children conceived in utero, any moral approach to reproductive cloning would ensure that clones were treated with the same respect and dignity as any other identical twins. However, parents frequently decide to produce additional offspring in order to provide matching bone-marrow donors for their critically-ill children. Pediatric kidney donations between living siblings takes place in many nations. For a family with a dying child, the prospect of using cloning to create a potential donor with a set of perfectly-matched genes--and ultimately, two healthy, lovable children--might be a godsend. The ethics surrounding such procedures are highly complex. Nobody should believe otherwise. However, one should never mistake the complexity of making a decision for its underlying morality. Certainly, there is a wide difference between believing that the possibilities of human cloning should be approached with wisdom and considerable caution, as do I, and deciding a priori that such potentially therapeutic opportunities should be dismissed out of hand. I cannot imagine that President Obama's remarks were intended to meant that, if reproductive cloning could be rendered safe for both mother and baby, and if it could save the life of a desperate sibling, it would still be profoundly wrong.

Individuals may wish to clone children for many additional reasons: some that strike mainstream society as highly reasonable, others that strike us as rather peculiar. Infertile couples might use the technology to produce children with some of their own DNA. A family who has lost a child in an accident might find some solace in cloning their lost son or daughter; the second kid would, of course, be a distinct human being from the first, with its own identity, but the sense of continuity experienced by the mourning parents might provide comfort nonetheless. The Raëlian Church has pursued cloning technology for religious purposes. As long as a scientific consensus exists that cloning is a health threat to the offspring, these individuals should not be permitted to risk bringing a severely disabled child into the world. I think most reasonable people would agree that when the health of children is at stake, we should set the safety bar high and take few unnecessary risks. However, if the times comes when scientists conclude that reproductive cloning can be conducted without a threat to the health of the offspring, then the burden will fall upon opponents to explain precisely why such a practice threatens human dignity or societal welfare. The cry of "we don't like it"--which has been used to justify opposing every aspect of human enlightenment from women's suffrage to gay equality--will simply not be a sufficient answer.

What has been lost in the rush to condemn reproductive cloning wholesale has been any meaningful effort to protect future children created through such a procedure. Whether the practice is legal or not in the United States, it will likely be only a matter of time before some determined scientist, somewhere in the world, creates a cloned human being. We need clear laws to establish the relationship between the supplier of the cloned DNA and the resulting progeny (eg. Are they siblings? Parent and child? What are the clone's inheritance rights?) We require guarantees that, if genetic defects do arise in such children as a result of cloning, treatment for these conditions will be covered by private health insurance. And we need careful regulation and funding to ensure that the procedure is rendered safe--if that can be done--before cloned embryos are brought to term. In short, we need legislation to ensure that any future cloned men and women will be treated with the dignity and humanity that they deserve.

In an ideal world, human reproductive cloning would be safe, legal and rare. I say rare because my guess is that the vast majority of people, myself included, would have little desire to raise cloned offspring. After all, it is now possible to clone pets dogs--but few of us would choose to spend a spare $150,000 on such a venture. Yet thirty-eight years after James Watson's seminal essay, "Moving Toward the Clonal Man," called for increased public debate on this promising and perplexing subject, I don't believe that we should be so quick to greet cloning technology with a permanent injunction. Instead, what human reproductive cloning requires at the moment is a yellow light, telling us to proceed with extreme caution, until we know with confidence whether the technology can ever be used to produce healthy babies.