Clones, Genes and Faustian Technology

by Robert J. Richards

In the wonderfully delirious second part of Goethe's drama Faust, Mephistopheles and Faust enter the laboratory of Professor Wagner, who has just concocted in a glass retort a most unusual precipitate. Mephistopheles asks what it is, and the researcher quickly responds: "A man is being made." The devil assumes it is in the usual fashion, done with "an amorous pair" tucked away somewhere. But this modern man of science dismisses that suggestion:

God forbid! Though that was once the fashion, We think it now only a silly passion. The tender point that gave rise to kin, The charming power that surged from within, Which got and begot with self-reflection, With near and far made close connection, All that's now unworthy of our protection.
In the U.S. Congress, legislation has been proposed that would provide exactly the protection that Wagner thought unnecessary. Indeed the legislation would make it a federal crime for any scientist to engage in human cloning--that is, the creation of an embryo via insertion in a female egg of genetic material gotten from a somatic source, perhaps from the male, perhaps from the woman herself. The outcome would be a genetic duplicate of the individual who furnished the genetic material. Through such means one could have, as it were, an identical twin, without the aid of an amorous pair tucked away somewhere.

The current debate

The current legislative debate over cloning really involves two questions: Can and should we allow cloning of embryos to derive materials for research and for possible therapies (so-called therapeutic cloning)? Can and should we allow cloning of embryos in order to create viable individuals (so-called reproductive cloning)?

In the case of therapeutic cloning, embryos might be produced from the somatic cells of individuals who are suffering from some disease like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, so that stem cells could be harvested and developed into just those kind of cells that have been killed in these diseases, thereby effecting a cure.

In the spring of 2002, some 40 Nobel prize winners signed a document directed to Congress, stating that cloning research is essential, and that any bans on therapeutic cloning would, to quote the document, "impede progress against some of the most debilitating diseases known to man."

In the Senate, Republican senator William Frist of Tennessee, a heart surgeon, said he would endorse a ban on such therapeutic cloning, and certainly on reproductive cloning. Others in the Senate, however, wish to permit therapeutic cloning, and so will oppose the Frist legislation. Yet, there seems to be no member of Congress ready to approve reproductive cloning, the kind dimly envisioned by Goethe in his drama.

Leon Kass, professor of social thought at the University of Chicago and head of the presidential commission charged with investigating these questions, put it in a direct way:

We are compelled to decide nothing less than whether human procreation is going to remain human, whether children are going to be made-to-order rather than begotten, and whether we wish to say yes in principle to the road that leads to the dehumanized hell of Brave New World.
It seems at least one member of the presidential commission has already made up his mind on the questions of investigation.

That dehumanized hell described by Aldous Huxley in his novel envisioned some sort of reproductive technology that would allow one to make babies, babies characterized by certain traits--docility, stupidity, and contentment. It was a hell arranged by a benevolent dictator who wished a quiescent populous.

Almost everyone seems to oppose reproductive cloning. And even when the question is therapeutic cloning, the opposition to such procedures quickly slides to talk about the evils of reproductive cloning. But I would like to ask the question: What is morally inappropriate about reproductive cloning?

The question to be put

There are several issues to discriminate in trying to answer this question. First is the problem of the technology of the procedure. A large variety of animals have now been cloned, so the technology is constantly being refined. There are recent reports from China and the Middle East that the cloning of human embryos has already occurred. The Chinese say the cloning is for therapeutic uses. And indeed, we know in mice, cloning techniques have allowed researchers to harvest stem cells that have been used to replace missing kinds of cells in mice--these techniques are the ones that would be used in therapeutic human cloning to effect a cure for some disease. There is little doubt, I think, that quite soon researchers will have the ability to clone a human embryo with minimal difficulty--and again, the Chinese, at least, seem to have already gotten a start doing this.

But even with animals that have been cloned, there are reports of problems with health and longevity. It's difficult to know exactly what the source of the problems might be: perhaps it's some defect that the cloning technique itself had introduced into these animals; perhaps it has something to do with the character of the somatic nuclei used. Right now it's unclear as to the extent of these problems and whether they can be overcome.

In the case of human therapeutic cloning, this might not prove too troubling, since the aim would not be to bring an embryo to full term, rather only to a very early stage of development (perhaps only a few hundred cells), so that stem cells could be harvested.

In the case of reproductive cloning, the risks are quite real and the technological problems may be insoluble, at least in the foreseeable future.

One could certainly mount a moral objection to bringing a human being into existence who might suffer debilitating problems later on because of the technique of cloning itself. Such moral objections could rightly be made a matter of legal policy, of prohibitory law. But let us suppose that the technological problems have all been solved, that the technology of cloning could produce a healthy human embryo that would mature into a healthy human being. Would it still be morally objectionable to allow such a procedure? It seems to me that this is the absolutely crucial question.

What are the considerations that might lead us to find reproduction through cloning morally objectionable?

In a good Thomistic vein (alumni of the University of Chicago may recall that characterization of "the Hutchins University": the University of Chicago is where Protestant students are taught Catholic philosophy by Jewish professors) one might object that reproductive cloning is unnatural. This assumes, of course, that we have a clear idea of what is natural--Mephistopheles certainly did, when he thought of the usual mode of reproduction. But, of course, most all of our medical procedures are themselves unnatural: they don't grow on trees. Physicians generally intervene in quite natural processes of disease, injury, and the like--in that respect, they try to thwart nature, and we wouldn't want it otherwise. Moreover, there is no reason to assume that nature should dictate our moral values. If she did, we would be stuck with some pretty cruel standards of morality.

Maybe it might be objected that if cloning became the standard way of reproducing, then genetic variability, the very stuff of evolution, would be reduced and the human race would suffer decline. After all, each new child produced the old-fashioned way has a genetic mixture that is not identical to the parents, with traits that might prove favorable in a changing environment.

This kind of danger seems quite minimal. Reproductive cloning will likely always be more expensive, painful, more fraught than the traditional way of reproduction, and simply not nearly as much fun. There is thus little chance of the technique becoming widespread. Hence the genetic variability of the human race will be preserved for eons, as far as one can tell. Perhaps it might be objected that these reproductive procedures somehow demean our human nature. This seems to be the objection that Leon Kass has. To determine the degree to which our human nature might be demeaned by this technique or any other procedure envisioned by Aldous Huxley in his novel, Leon uses a quite subjective criterion--that is, what evokes from us a feeling of repugnance.

Let us consider and then quickly dismiss the notion that feelings of repugnance might be a reliable moral guide. I suspect right now Israelis and Palestinians feel overwhelming repugnance for each other and for the specific acts of each. Things that at one time seemed repugnant--for example, the thought of being vaccinated with cow pus (or the equivalent of cow pus in today's vaccination against small pox)--we've learned to tolerate. Notoriously practiced killers feel little repugnance of their acts. I must confess I myself have a deep feeling of repugnance when I go to a French restaurant and see someone eating escargot: I recall the snails I played with as a child. Feelings of repugnance can hardly be recommended as a moral guide.

What about insults to human dignity? President Bush has declared, "As we seek to improve human life, we must always preserve human dignity ... and therefore, we must prevent human cloning by stopping it before it starts." President Bush had in mind cloning for both therapeutic and reproductive purposes.

What human dignity consists in is, I think, not so clear. When techniques of in vitro fertilization were first broached, such claims about an insult to human dignity emerged. In an article in the New Republic, Kass included in vitro fertilization with those procedures that he thought diminished human dignity. Few others, I suppose, would find this technology in any way demeaning of human dignity. Rather, one might regard it as an affirmation of human life.

The 40 Nobel scientists whom I mentioned before certainly don't find therapeutic cloning damaging to human dignity, especially when such cloning might be used to cure undignified human diseases like Alzheimer's. Perhaps, though, reproductive cloning, as opposed to therapeutic, might be an insult to human dignity, as vague as that standard is. We do have that image from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, an image of the scientific production of human infants. Huxley portrays a dystopia--a totalitarian society that designs human beings and social arrangements to keep individuals pacified and mindlessly happy. It's a society, of course, that no one would want to live in. This doesn't mean, however, that just because some technology is used for disreputable ends, the technology itself is intrinsically evil. But maybe it's the subsidiary end that Huxley describes that is morally offensive, that is, the notion that babies should be designed at all, that a baby's character and traits should be chosen in advance.

There is a distinct sense, of course, in which, from time immemorial, a baby's traits have been chosen by the parents in advance. This occurred when the parents chose each other. Evolutionary theorists, sociologists, and psychologists will likely tell you that when a partner is chosen, human beings always have an eye to what would make a good reproductive partner, a partner that will help create a healthy, vigorous child. That is, we aim to design babies by reason of the choice of manufacturer, at it were. What we deem as beauty in a partner are very likely signs of health and fertility--for example, symmetrical features, clear skin, youth, signs of intelligence, and personality. These would be the traits one would look for in offspring as well. Not, of course, that potential mates completely consciously make such decisions--but parents certainly know that their offspring are likely to inherit some combination of their own traits, and they choose mates with that as a consideration.

Many people find it appropriate to make decisions about abortion if one has knowledge of a defective fetus; for many it seems perfectly morally acceptable to choose not to have a child who will manifest certain traits--especially when these traits may be extremely debilitating. And virtually no one believes that genetic counseling is inappropriate ultimately to achieve the same end, namely making sure that offspring will be healthy. In this general sense, therefore, parents do design their children in advance.

If the technology of human cloning is successful, we can be fairly sure what traits an infant so produced would exhibit, namely those of the individual providing the genetic material. But it's not clear that something we might desire to do but can only do at the present time haphazardly--when we chose a mate, for instance, with an eye to a healthy offspring--becomes evil when done with more precision. The fact that our designing intent can be more precisely achieved by cloning than by sexual reproduction would not in itself seem morally objectionable. Perhaps the evil done in cloning arises from the psychological trauma that a child might face when he or she learns how the reproduction occurred. This same kind of worry was present in the case of babies originally conceived in vitro. But this seems not to be a serious psychological problem at all--at least those children produced through in vitro fertilization seem to have adjusted well.

This might well be an important consideration in reproductive cloning, since it certainly does not seem at all similar to sexual reproduction. Such danger, of course, will be a function of the way the parents and the rest of society regard such procedures. If they think of reproductive cloning as an abomination, then children would likely have a hard time with it--though, again, the in vitro fertilization cases would suggest these problems can be overcome.

The fear is always voiced that some egotist will simply want to duplicate himself or herself. But this motivation is not unknown to parents now (which is not necessarily to endorse that motivation). Yet evolution does seem to instill in us the desire to make copies of ourselves. This is, as it were, the grand design of evolution. This might also be regarded as the grand design of graduate school.

Positive value

While we're considering some of the potential objections to reproductive cloning, we ought to consider what value might be claimed for the procedure. There will be some cases of infertility when cloning would seem appropriate. If either partner is sterile, the technique now is to use a surrogate. This means that the offspring will have some of the genetic characteristics of an individual other than the sterile partner--foreign genes will be introduced. A male, for instance, might well prefer an offspring that was very much like the female; and vice versa. The offspring, say in the case of the cloning of the female, would not be identical to the mother, no more than identical twins would be really identical--they have separate consciousness and personalities and body differences, due to phenotypic plasticity. Indeed, it would be likely that the offspring would be rather unlike the mother, since the child would be raised in very different circumstances from the mother.

Perhaps single individuals might wish to have children who are genetically related to them. Certainly right now, I know of women who have decided to have a child but have done so through artificial insemination. But this does mean having a child whose genetic background might be unknown. I can well imagine some individuals who would prefer to be more certain, and simply to become more certain by duplicating their own genetic structure. I'm not sure there is anything wrong with that.

When a young child dies, the parents may or may not be in a position to reproduce in the normal way. One can imagine that such parents--or perhaps a single parent--may desire to reproduce, not the dead child, but a child who might be the identical twin. Using cells from the very ill or just deceased child would enable that to occur.

I'm hard-pressed to think of other situations in which a positive good might come of reproductive cloning; perhaps you can. On the other hand, there seem to be no reasons morally to oppose it, at least that I can see. Thus I'm not at all sure why we should feel morally opposed to it, or try to ban it by legislation.

Let me conclude simply. Given the difficulties in reproductive cloning, it is quite doubtful that it would be generally undertaken, except for reasons of infertility, either because of some abnormality or because of the single state or to replace a child who has recently died. The desire to have children, to nurture them, and help them develop seems like a positive good, regardless of the technique by which it is accomplished. But in the end, I suspect that Professor Wagner's way of doing things, or that of the modern geneticist, will always be less desirable than the usual way--an amorous pair tucked away somewhere.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Robert J. Richards

Robert J. Richards is a professor of history, philosophy and psychology and director of the Morris Fishbein Center for the History of Medicine and Science at the University of Chicago. His research in history and philosophy of psychology and biology includes particular interest in evolutionary biopsychology, ethology, and sociobiology, as well as in theories of perception from the ancient period to the present day. He has written two books on the history and philosophy of evolutionary theory in Britain and America, and is currently at work on the development of evolutionary theory in Germany during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Richards holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from St. Louis University and a Ph.D. in the history of science from the University of Chicago.

COPYRIGHT | This article is adapted from remarks at the "Clones, Genes, and Stem Cells" panel held at the University of Chicago in April 2002. Copyright 2002 The University of Chicago.

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