The cloning of humans is now very close to reality, thanks to the historic scientific breakthrough of Dr. Ian Wilmut and his colleagues in the UK. This possibility is one of incredible potential benefit for all of us. Unfortunately the initial debate on this issue has been dominated by misleading, sensationalized accounts in the news media and negative emotional reactions derived from inaccurate science fiction. Much of the negativity about human cloning is based simply on the breathtaking novelty of the concept rather than on any real undesirable consequences. On balance, human cloning would have overwhelming advantages if regulated in a reasonable way. A comprehensive ban on human cloning by a misinformed public would be a sorry episode in human history. This essay will discuss both the advantages and the alleged negative consequences of human cloning.
What is a Human Clone?
A human clone is really just a time-delayed identical twin of another person. Science fiction novels and movies have given people the impression that human clones would be mindless zombies, Frankenstein monsters, or “doubles.” This is all complete nonsense. Human clones would be human beings just like you and me, not zombies. They would be carried and delivered after nine months by a human mother and raised in a family just like everyone else. They would require 18 years to reach adulthood just like everyone else. Consequently, a clone-twin will be decades younger than the original person. There is no danger of people confusing a clone-twin with the original person. As with identical twins, the clone and DNA donor would have different fingerprints. A clone will not inherit any of the memories of the original person. Because of these differences, a clone is not a xerox copy or “double” of a person, just a much younger identical twin. Human clones would have the same legal rights and responsibilities as any other human being. Human clones will be human beings in every sense. You could not keep a clone as a slave. Human slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865.
It should be emphasized that all human cloning must be done on an individual voluntary basis. The living person who is to be cloned would have to give their consent, and the woman who gives birth to the clone-twin and raises the child must also be acting voluntarily. No other scenario is conceivable in a free democratic country. Because cloning requires a woman to gestate the baby, there is no danger of evil scientists creating thousands of clones in secret laboratories. Cloning will be done only at the request and with the participation of ordinary people, as an additional reproduction option.
Many people have asked, “Why would anyone want to clone a human being?” There are at least two good reasons: to allow families to conceive twins of exceptional individuals, and to allow childless couples to reproduce. In a free society we must also ask, “Are the negative consequences sufficiently compelling that we must prohibit consenting adults from doing this?” We will see that in general they are not. Where specific abuses are anticipated, these can be avoided by targeted laws and regulations, which I will suggest below.
The cultural and economic value of cloning Clint Eastwood would be enormous.
Cloning Exceptional People
Exceptional people are valuable in many ways, both culturally and financially. For example, US movie stars and sports stars are often worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Let’s consider the specific example of Clint Eastwood. His films have grossed several billion dollars over thirty years. Today he is 67 years old and nearing the end of his acting and directing career. He is one of the most popular living movie stars. As Richard Schickel says in an essay on Eastwood, “For actors, more than for most people, genetics is destiny.” The cultural and economic value of cloning Clint Eastwood would be enormous. Tens of millions of fans would be delighted. Furthermore, this could be done very conveniently. He certainly has the financial resources to pay for the procedure. His new wife is of child-bearing age, and could easily carry and deliver the child, which would be brought up in the family. If the Eastwood family decided they wanted to do this, why should government prohibit it? Why should this be a crime?
The same argument applies to sports stars. For example, people have suggested cloning Michael Jordan, the super basketball player. Obviously this should only be done with the approval of Mr. Jordan and a woman, preferably married, who wants to raise the child. Millions of basketball fans would applaud the announcement of the successful cloning of Michael Jordan. There would be widespread interest and incentives in the cloning of other major sports figures, for example Wilt Chamberlain, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams, the last major league baseball player to bat over .400. Of course, we will have to wait about 20 years for the twins of these great sports figures to reach adulthood, and there is always the possibility that the twin might not be interested in sports. But with the prospect before them of earning millions of dollars, this does not seem very likely.
Why should we not also allow the cloning of distinguished intellectuals and scientists, such as science fiction visionary Arthur C. Clarke, Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, and even Dr. Ian Wilmut himself? Wilmut is certain to win the Nobel prize in medicine/physiology. In fact any Nobel prize winner would be worth cloning for the potential future contribution which their twin might make. Again we are talking about the decision being made by the individuals directly involved: the DNA donor, the woman who will bear the child, and her husband who would help in raising the child.
Arthur C. Clarke
Cloning is also reasonable in the case of even ordinary individuals. The concept of “exceptional people” is not limited to movie stars and Nobel prize winners. All of us know people we admire and respect. We sometimes think to ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were more people in the world like that?” Human cloning allows us to go beyond wistful thoughts of this kind. Suppose old Uncle Max is a great guy, regarded with affection and respect in the community and by his family. His niece and her husband decide they would like to have a child just like Uncle Max. He is flattered and agrees to allow himself to be cloned. Why should the US Congress, in its infinite wisdom, intervene and declare that Uncle Max and his niece are criminals who should be jailed by the reproduction police? Where is the evil consequence for them and for society? Why should this be a crime?
What might we expect from human clones? The answers come from studies of natural identical twins. Human clones will look just like the original person and have essentially the same height and build. For famous super-models and movie stars, these may be the most important characteristics. Identical twins have a 70% correlation of intelligence and a 50% correlation of personality traits. This means that if someone clones a distinguished scientist, the clone-twin might actually be more intelligent than the original scientist! If a clone of Elizabeth Taylor has a somewhat different personality, who cares? At the present time we cannot be sure what percentage of twins of distinguished people will make equally valuable contributions, but if we ban cloning we will never know. Drive and determination are certainly important characteristics of many distinguished people. Perhaps drive and determination are genetically influenced characteristics. If we find that clones of distinguished people are not living up to the reputations of their predecessors, then the incentive for human cloning will be diminished. We would then see human cloning done less frequently based on informed individual choice.
Alleged Objections to Human Cloning
Some politicians in the United States are now proposing to save us from the horrors of human cloning by a comprehensive prohibition. The interesting thing is that under close analysis there really aren’t any serious problems. In the few cases where abuses are likely to occur, these can be avoided by targeted legislation. There is nothing about human cloning per se that justifies its criminalization. The only objection that stands up under analysis is that the technology has not been perfected. This is a justification for further research, not for a prohibition.
The only objection that stands up under analysis is that the technology has not been perfected. This is a justification for further research, not for a prohibition.
The number of fantastic and absurd objections to human cloning is absolutely astonishing, and indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of the concept by the general public. Instead of pandering to uninstructed fears, politicians would do better to undertake a program to educate the public to a realistic understanding of cloning. If lawmakers are foolish enough to criminalize human cloning in the US, there are good prospects that the Supreme Court will declare this to be unconstitutional. Failing that, Americans will still have the option of flying to a free country to obtain the procedure.
Let us now consider in detail some of the major objections to human cloning which people have put forth:
The very thought is repugnant and disgusting.
Creating another person with the same genetic code would violate human dignity and uniqueness.
These arguments are invalidated by the existence of over 150 million people in the world today whose genetic codes are not unique. I am speaking of natural identical twins, which occur on average once in every 67 births. Natural twins are much more alike than clone-twins, because natural twins are exactly the same age, whereas a clone-twin and the DNA donor will usually be decades apart in age. Are twins or triplets repugnant and disgusting? Do twins violate human dignity? Of course not! On the contrary, most twins will tell you that having a twin is a wonderful and rewarding experience.
This reaction in many cases is simply a response to misinformation and confusion about the concept of a human clone. But if you find cloning offensive, by all means don’t do it. Even if many people still consider the thought of human clones disgusting, this is not sufficient grounds for a prohibition. For the sake of individual freedom, many activities are allowed in this world which people find disgusting. For example many people find nose rings and sex change operations disgusting, but these are not outlawed because we value freedom of choice. There is a notion that truly “victimless crimes” should not be crimes. In the case of human cloning, who would be the victim? It is difficult to believe that the human clones would consider themselves victims simply because they share the same genetic code as someone else. The millions of identical twins do not think of themselves as victims. It is also difficult to see how society as a whole would be victimized by allowing human cloning. Human clones are likely to think of themselves as special, particularly when they are the twins of distinguished individuals. They will also have the advantage of knowing early in life what they are good at. Where is the problem?
It would diminish genetic diversity, leaving us more vulnerable to disease epidemics, etc.
This objection is based on an extreme, unjustified extrapolation. There are over five billion people on this planet. Certainly human cloning will be done on a very modest scale, because of the costs involved and because most women will not want to be the mother of a clone-twin. It will be many decades before the total number of human clones approaches even one million people in the entire world. On a percentage basis they would constitute a microscopic fraction of the total population, and would not have any effect on human genetic diversity. I will also argue later that human cloning may actually allow us to recover lost genetic diversity. If at some remote future date human cloning became widespread, then some limitation of this activity would be warranted. However, bear in mind that even if one clone of every person on the planet were created, genetic diversity would be undiminished because we would still have five billion genetically different individuals.
It could lead to the creation of human monsters or freaks.
Human cloning is not the same as human genetic engineering. In human cloning, the DNA is copied to create someone who is an exact twin of an existing person, and consequently not a monster or a freak. Human genetic engineering would involve the modification of human DNA to create a person who may be unlike any person who previously existed. This could conceivably lead to the creation of very unusual individuals, even monsters. Human genetic engineering, while having vast positive potential, is indeed a very risky undertaking and should be conducted only with the greatest circumspection and oversight. Cloning is tame in comparison with genetic engineering. If you are afraid of human cloning, you are going to be petrified by human genetic engineering.
Evil dictators might abuse human cloning.
There is the possibility that unscrupulous dictators such as Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein might try to perpetuate their power by creating a clone of themselves and transferring power to the clone when they die. There is also the possibility that such people might try to create a super army of thousands of clones of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and so on. These possibilities cannot be dismissed. However, it is important to keep in mind that passing laws in the US or other democratic countries cannot control the behavior of rogue dictators in totalitarian countries. The prohibition of human cloning in the US or Europe is not going to stop cloning in Iraq. If Saddam Hussein wants to clone himself, nothing short of a major military invasion can stop him. The evil in these scenarios derives not from cloning but from dictatorships. The proper solution would be a world-wide ban on dictators, which of course is not likely to happen.
The technology has not been perfected. It could lead to the death of the fetus.
No area of human activity is free of accidental death. Human cloning is no exception. Some of the other cloned lambs at Roslin were stillborn. At the moment the technology for cloning mammals is experimental and the success rate is still low. By additional experimentation on higher mammals, we may anticipate that cloning procedures will be perfected to the point where the risk of miscarriage or death of the baby is the same as for any other birth.
Thirty thousand people perished on the Oregon Trail. Forty thousand people die in automobile accidents every year in the United States. There are many fatal airplane crashes, with hundreds of people and dozens of children dying in a single accident. Many adults and children choke to death on chicken bones every year. Yet we do not think of banning automobiles, airplanes, or fried chicken because the positive benefits outweigh the risks. If airplanes were to be invented now instead of 90 years ago, I’m afraid there would be serious proposals to ban airplanes because of the risk of injury and death. It is absurd to ban a new technological breakthrough just because, initially, it is not perfectly safe.
Millionaires might clone themselves just to obtain organs for transplant.
This is one of the most preposterous of all claims about cloning. A human clone is a human being. In a free society you cannot force another human being to give you one of their internal organs. You certainly cannot kill another human being to obtain one of their organs. Existing laws already prevent such abuse. Note also that if your clone-twin is injured in an accident, you might be asked to give up one of your kidneys to save the clone! If the organ donor is still a child, society may want to intervene and declare that this is prohibited. In fact the removal of an organ from any child, clone or not, for transplant into another person is a very questionable practice which must be stringently regulated.
Many legitimate future applications of cloning technology have been envisioned in the areas of organ replacement, skin grafts for burn victims, etc. These would not involve cloning an entire person, but only application of the same nucleus transfer technology to grow new tissue or organs for medical purposes.
Do we really want 200 clones of Sophia Loren or Cindy Crawford?
Perhaps not, and it is unlikely to happen. (However, the idea of replicating beautiful women does not sound so bad to most men.) If we are talking about the cloning of a living person, and their consent is required, as it should be by law, they are extremely unlikely to agree to the creation of 200 clones. A person is likely to approve the creation of at most one or two clones of themselves. Also, remember that human clones cannot be mass produced in the laboratory. Each one must be gestated and carried to term by a woman, just like any other baby. How do the cloning critics imagine that 200 women are going to be persuaded to gestate these 200 identical babies? If we are really worried about this possibility, society could simply prohibit the creation of more than two clones of the same person, rather than prohibit all cloning.
If we are talking about cloning someone who is now dead, a more distant possibility, then the question of limiting the number of clone-twins becomes a reasonable subject for thought and debate. We will have plenty of time for this debate. Certainly the mere existence of multiple individuals with identical appearances, as with triplets and quintuplets, is not inherently degrading to the humanity of those individuals.
Religious leaders discredit themselves when they propose to jail people that they cannot persuade.
It amounts to playing God.
The Bible and the holy texts of other major religions do not explicitly prohibit human cloning. Consequently, religious opposition to human cloning is not firmly based. There will nevertheless be many who think that cloning humans is “wrong” for religious reasons. These people should of course not participate in cloning. Religious leaders who believe human cloning is wrong are entitled to preach their beliefs and persuade whom they can. They discredit themselves when they propose to jail people that they cannot persuade. Jesus never advocated force to compel people to live according to Christian beliefs. Legal enforcement of religious beliefs is a very poor idea and also a violation of the US Constitution.
In contrast with abortion, which involves the termination of the life of a fetus, cloning involves the creation of new life. Consequently, opposition to human cloning is not based on established moral principles. It is also possible to argue that if God had not wanted us to clone mammals or people, he would not have created Dr. Wilmut. By all means remain true to your own beliefs, but don’t tell me what to do with my DNA. I personally wouldn’t want to clone myself, but free people should be free to make that choice without compulsion from society.
The accusation of “playing God” is a vague but recurring criticism. We hear it every time there is a major advance in medicine. At one time birth control pills, in vitro fertilization, and heart transplants were criticized on the same grounds. God often performs good deeds which we should try to imitate. If playing God by cloning humans can have bad consequences, the critics are obliged to specify precisely what those bad consequences might be. So far they have not done so.
Desirable Governmental Regulations
Human cloning is a new and unexplored legal arena and will definitely require some legal regulation to prevent abuse. Here are some suggestions for moderate legislation which seems desirable:
1. Human clones should be declared to have the same legal rights and responsibilities as any other human being. People will not be able to keep a human clone in the wine cellar for spare body parts any more than they can an identical twin. The abuse of any human being is a crime, regardless of whether or not their genetic code is unique.
2. A living person should not be cloned without their written consent. A person is entitled to an automatic copyright for their genetic code, and this should remain under their control. A person should be allowed to specify in their will whether they wish to allow themselves to be cloned after their death, and under what circumstances. We may want to prohibit the cloning of someone who has not reached adulthood, because they may not have the maturity to make this kind of decision.
3. Human clones should only be gestated and delivered by a voluntary adult woman. The growth of a human fetus outside of a woman’s body, for example in a laboratory apparatus, should be prohibited. At present the technology does not exist for an artificial uterus, but Japanese researchers are working on it.
4. The cloning of convicted murderers and other violent criminals should be prohibited. There is reason to believe that a predisposition to violence and murder are genetically determined. It should be illegal to clone Charles Manson. The world has an ample supply of criminals without artificially creating more of them. This should definitely include notorious mass-murderers of the past, such as Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin, in anticipation of the day when this will become possible.
Cloning the Dead
Cloning of the dead is not science-fiction. It has already happened. An interesting but little-known fact about the Wilmut cloning procedure is that it was performed with frozen cells, not fresh cells. (This information was obtained directly from Ian Wilmut by Dr. Patrick Dixon.) At the time Dolly was cloned, the sheep from which the udder cells were taken was already dead. Thus the DNA donor, whether animal or human, need not even be alive when the cloning occurs. If a tissue sample of a person is properly frozen, the person could be cloned long after their death. In the case of people who have already died and whose tissue has not been frozen, cloning becomes much more difficult, and present procedures are inadequate. However, any biologist would be brave indeed to now declare that this is impossible. Let us now look ahead to the near future and speculate on the possibilities which will open up if research can develop a method for creating a clone from non-living DNA.
All human tissue contains DNA and could potentially be a source for cloning. This includes human hair, bones, and teeth. Unfortunately, DNA begins to slowly decompose a few weeks after death, destroying segments of the genetic code. Only a few short fragments of dinosaur DNA have survived after 60 million years, so the chances for realizing Jurassic Park are slim. However, the prospects are good for recovering a complete DNA sequence from human tissue samples, because much less time has elapsed. Think of the genetic code as a book of blueprints from which paragraphs or pages are randomly erased over time. If we only have one copy of the book, the complete set of blueprints can not be recovered. Luckily we will have more than one copy. In a bone or tissue sample there will be many thousands of cells, each with its own copy of the DNA code. This is like having thousands of copies of the same book. If page 239 has been erased in one book, that page may still be intact in another one, so that it is possible to recover a perfect copy of the original genetic code by combining information from many cells. Another mitigating factor is that only a small percentage of the three billion symbols in the human genetic code is responsible for individual differences. For example, the genetic codes for chimpanzees and humans are actually 99% identical. This means that less than 1% of the code, the part that determines human individual differences, needs to be recovered. The rest could be spliced in from any living human cell. Clearly all this is beyond present technology, but is feasible in principle.
Locks of hair of many famous people from the past have been preserved. This list includes Isaac Newton, George Washington, Napoleon, Beethoven, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and John Lennon. For example, not too long ago some of Isaac Newton’s hair was analyzed and discovered to contain a high concentration of arsenic, due to his chemical experiments. Until now these locks of hair were merely curiosities. With human cloning on the edge of reality, they now take on a much greater significance. It is entirely possible that great men and women of the past could be cloned from samples of their hair, tissue, or bones. Albert Einstein’s brain has been preserved in a jar. We know the location of the bones of many other famous people, such as Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo da Vinci, and Eva Peron. We should take action to ensure that tissue samples of distinguished people of the past are adequately preserved from destruction, if necessary by law. Cryogenic storage would be desirable to prevent further deterioration of the DNA in these samples.
The prospect of cloning outstanding people of the past is an extremely exciting possibility, and justifies the most intensive research efforts. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are two of the greatest scientists of all time. Imagine the potential for scientific advancement if these two scientists could be cloned and educated in the 21st century. Having due regard for cultural sensitivities, Newton’s clone would be raised in England, and Einstein’s clone would no doubt be raised in a Jewish family, perhaps by the actual descendants of Einstein. As with clones of movie stars and sports figures, there is no guarantee than their twins would necessarily want to study physics. They might instead find some other field of science more interesting in their new existence, such as artificial intelligence or genetic engineering. Assuming they were born at about the same time, it would even be possible for the clone-twins of Newton and Einstein to collaborate scientifically! What scientific marvels might these two great minds discover working together?
It is also possible to imagine that the great political leaders of the past might be cloned from hair or bone samples. Names that come to mind include Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. There is some evidence that leadership traits are genetically determined. Of course a person’s life experience has a major impact on their personality, interests, and ambitions. Yet it does not seem unlikely that some of the twins of these great men might also want to enter politics and even aspire to high office, just as the son’s of politicians sometimes follow the same career. How incredibly exciting it would be to witness a presidential race in the next century between the twin of Abraham Lincoln and the twin of Franklin Roosevelt, unstricken by polio. Who would win in a contest between clone-twins of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan? Would the twin of Winston Churchill once again be chosen prime minister of Great Britain, or would he be out of place in the presumed peace of the 21st century? He might instead become a distinguished television commentator and author.
There would also be tremendous interest and advantage in cloning great sports figures of the past, such as Jim Thorpe, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Jesse Owens. The Olympic games of the year 2032 would be a sensation if the clone-twins of Jim Thorpe and Jesse Owens were to compete against each other.
The same technology that could clone Adolf Hitler could also be used to clone Anne Frank!
Another potential for human cloning may be in the partial restitution of great iniquities of the past. It is possible that many of the millions of victims of the Nazi concentration camps could be cloned to recover lost genetic strains. The same technology that could clone Adolf Hitler could also be used to clone Anne Frank! Human cloning would for the first time offer the world’s Jewish community a constructive response to the Holocaust. In Russia there remains a serious concern about the diminution of the gene pool caused by Stalin’s mass executions of their society’s best and brightest. In a limited sense, cloning could give a chance for new life to individuals of the past whose lives were unjustly and prematurely ended.
The Mummy of Ramses II
And what about DNA from the Egyptian mummies? Perhaps the ancient Egyptians were wiser than we thought to preserve the body after death. The complete mummy of Ramses II reposes in excellent condition in the Egyptian museum in Cairo. This is the Pharaoh of the Old Testament. A technology for human cloning would allow a modern Egyptian woman to give birth to the twin of this great historical figure. Who would not want to see the living image of Ramses II and hear the same voice that spoke to Moses over three thousand years ago?
It is clear that human cloning has enormous potential benefits and few real negative consequences. As with many scientific advances of the past, such as airplanes and computers, the only real threat is to our own narrow mental complacency. In the areas of scientific advancement and cultural achievement, human clones can make major contributions. In specific cases where abuse of cloning is anticipated, these abuses can be prohibited by targeted legislation. With a little common sense and reasonable regulation, human cloning is not something to be feared. We should look forward to it with excited anticipation, and support research which will hasten its realization. Exceptional people are among the world’s greatest treasures. Human cloning will allow us to preserve and eventually even recover these treasures.
Leonardo da Vinci
Other Perspectives on Human Cloning
“Human Clones: Why Not?” by Nathan Myhrvold
“Cloning Humans: Is it Ethical?” by Dorothy C. Wertz.
“I, Clone” by Ronald M. Green
“Genetic Encores: the Ethics of Human Cloning” by Robert Wachbroit
“Send in the Clones” by Ronald Bailey
“Scientists becoming sanguine about cloning humans” by Gina Kolata
“Human Cloning? Don’t just say no.” by Ruth Macklin
“Human Cloning and the Challenge of Regulation” by John A. Robertson
“Cloning, Families, and the Reproduction of Persons” by Jim Nelson