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Practical Council: Important Stuff from the Kass Commission

Published in National Review

They keep threatening to do it, and now, they say they have. The flying-saucer cult, the Raelians, announced that its scientists have implanted a woman with a cloned human embryo. “The next announcement will be the birth of a baby,” their chief scientist Brigitte Boisselier, cheerily announced to the world.

Whether this is actually true, or whether such an embryo could actually be successfully gestated, remains to be seen. But the announcement is good cause to revisit a relatively neglected portion of the recently issued report, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, by the President’s Council on Bioethics. It’s the chapter outlining the reasons that the council unanimously agreed that Congress should outlaw “cloning-to-produce-children” (CPC). 

The Council’s Case Against CPC

At present, virtually every respectable scientific and bioethics organization agrees that CPC should be outlawed immediately. That seeming unanimity is actually less than meets the eye. For while it is certainly true that groups like the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) support a law designed to prevent attempts at CPC, their opposition is grounded in a mere utilitarian worry that cloning-to-produce-children is not presently safe. Thus, rather than urging a permanent ban, the NAS suggested a moratorium until the safety issue is solved.

Fortunately, the president’s council took a much broader and deeper approach. Not only does the council conclude unanimously that cloning isn’t currently safe, but it also strongly suggests that there “seems to be no ethical way to try to discover whether cloning-to-produce-children can become safe, now or in the future.” In other words, unlike the NAS, the council isn’t merely urging that CPC be banned “for now,” but rather, for always

The council members spent more than 18 single-spaced pages of text making their case. The text against CPC is divided into several general categories, including safety, exploitation of women, the undermining of family life, and the worry about creating a brave new world. 

Safety: It is certainly no secret that mammalian clones have very high numbers of genetic defects. But “high” is a mild word for the actual statistics. As reported by the council, a whopping 89 percent of embryos implanted into female animals did not come to birth. Moreover, many of those few that have been born suffer from genetic defects, probably including Dolly, the famous cloned sheep. 

But the current inability to clone safely is not the council’s primary point of opposition to CPC. Rather, the members state unequivocally that there is no ethical way to make human CPC safe because experiments in CPC would always be practiced upon “prospective children.” The council states, “Any child-to-be is a singularly vulnerable creature, one maximally deserving of protection against risk of experimental (and other) harm.” This being so, with experiments likely leading to damage — or the death of — unborn life, any chances that experiments designed to learn how to clone a human child could ever be “ethical” are deemed by the council to be “extremely low” with the “moral burden” of proof that would permit such experiments to proceed unlikely to be met “for decades if at all.” 

The safety of the potential mother is also a significant concern to the council. Animal studies have shown that cloned embryos are often very large, posing potential problems to the birth mother’s health. Moreover, many animal clones spontaneously abort late in pregnancy, opening up significant health risks, such as toxemia, to women who attempt to give birth to a cloned baby. (Just under 1/3 of clone-impregnated cows have died from complications late in pregnancy.) Not insignificant in this regard, would be the grief and emotional toll that late-term miscarriages would cause birth mothers who lost their babies.

Exploiting women: The council highlights the danger of exploitation that could arise from widespread CPC. Human eggs for cloning would be obtained via a process known as hyper-ovulation, (also called super-ovulation) in which a woman is administered strong hormones to induce her ovaries to release seven-ten eggs in her cycle instead of the usual one. These eggs are then surgically extracted. Hyper-ovulation has the potential for serious side effects, such as infection, infertility, and in very rare cases, death.

“Widespread use of the technique of cloning-to-produce children would require large number of eggs,” the council warns. “Animal models suggest that several hundred eggs may be required before an attempt at cloning can be successful.” The demand for eggs could result in the creation of an egg market that “might lead poor women especially to place themselves at risk.” In other words, the council properly worries that poor women could be reduced to the status of a mere natural resource. 

Undermining family life: The council opines that cloning to produce children could tend to reduce parenthood to acts of solipsism. “Proponents of cloning tend to see procreation primarily as the free exercise of parental rights — to satisfy parental desires for self-fulfillment or for a child who is healthy or ‘superior.'” “These principles,” the council suggests, “provide at best only a partial understanding of the meaning and entailments of human procreation and child rearing.”

In beautiful prose, the report notes that ideally, “a child is not made, but begotten. Procreation is not making but the outgrowth of doing …the issue of their [parents’] love, not the product of their wills.” Parents don’t “choose a particular child as they might a particular car.” Rather, “a begotten child comes into the world just as its parents once did, and is therefore equal in dignity and humanity.”

CPC, however, mutates this ideal creating “serious problems of identity and individuality,” for child and parents alike, a problem especially acute if “multiple copies” of a cloned child were made. For example, a cloned child could be “constantly compared to ‘the original,’ and may consciously or unconsciously hold himself or herself up to the genetic twin that came before.” 

This danger could prove especially troubling if grieving parents cloned their dead child. This prospect isn’t fanciful musing but a very real prospect. When I debated Brigitte Boisselier at the University of Alabama, she told the audience that one of Clonaid’s clients (Clonaid is the name of the for-profit corporation owned by the Raelians) were keeping their dead daughter’s toys for the new daughter they hope to the Raelian’s will clone (undoubtedly a hefty fee) from the DNA of the dead girl. 

Imagine the psychological impact on the entire family when a child is seen as a replicant. Or imagine the pressures on the future clone made from the DNA of a deceased great man or woman. The debate about the fate of the body of Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams was about preserving him for this purpose. How intense would the pressure be on the clone-of-Ted to become a great baseball player? But what if he wanted to be a violin player or an engineer? Indeed, what if he hated sports? Would cloning companies give warranties allowing disappointed parents to demand their money back?

Then there is the problem of defining who-is-who within clonal families. With cloning, the usual and natural definitions of “father and brother, mother and sister” would be confounded. For example, a wife could give birth to her husband’s identical-twin sibling, making the clone not only the brother of the couple’s existing children but also their uncle. Or perhaps, a woman could give birth to her own grandmother’s identical twin, making her daughter also her great aunt! While the council wrote that the impact of such chaotic relations is “speculative,” the adverse consequences could be profound, e.g., trouble could definitely brew when the “teenage clone of the mother [who is no blood relation to the husband] reappears as the double of the woman the father once fell in love with.” 

Brave New World: The council found that CPC also reduces humans to mere “products” that are “made to order by their producers or progenitors.” With cloning extending the choice from “whether to have a child” to “what kind of child to have,” the result all too easily could become eugenic, where “industrial and commercialization of human reproduction,” transforms children into mere “commodities in the marketplace.” Eventually, through genetic engineering, some would “seek to alter humanity, based on arbitrary ideas of excellence,” potentially leading us to “lose the sense of what is and what is not human.” This too isn’t paranoid alarmism. The bioethics literature is rife with calls for allowing eugenic enhancement of the human race, including the potential of making human/animal chimeras to improve human physical capabilities.

Putting all of this (and more) together, the council concludes that CPC’s impact on society could be as adverse as it would be profound: 

A society that allows dehumanizing practices — especially when given an opportunity to try to prevent them — risks becoming an accomplice in those practices…Thus the question before us is whether the cloning-to-produce children is an activity that we as a society should engage in. In addressing this question, we must reach well beyond the rights of individuals and the difficulties or benefits that cloned children or the families might encounter. We must consider what kind of a society we wish to be, and, in particular, what forms of bringing children into the world we want to encourage and what sorts of relations between the generations we want to preserve.

As a consequence, the council unanimously agreed, “that cloning-to-produce-children is not only unsafe but also morally unacceptable and ought not to be attempted.”

Much of the Anti-CPC Case Applies to CBR

As I read the council’s argument against CPC, I was struck by a deep irony. Many of the arguments made against CPC could and should be made against cloning-for-biomedical research. Indeed, some are even stronger against CBR than they are against CPC.

Take the problem of exploitation of women for their eggs as just one example. Recall that the unanimous council worries that the need for obtaining multitudes of human eggs for CPC presents “disproportionate burdens on women, particularly low-income women.”

But CBR would require tens of millions of more eggs than would CPR! Here’s why: One of the goals of CBR is to develop the technique of “therapeutic cloning,” a process by which a clone of a patient would be made, developed in vitro to the blastocyst stage of embryonic development, and then destroyed to extract embryonic stem cells. 

The NAS has identified 126 million American patients who, it claims, could benefit from therapeutic cloning. Since it takes many eggs to successfully develop a cloned embryo, and it may take many cloned embryos to successfully create a viable embryonic-stem-cell line, the number of eggs required to bring therapeutic cloning to the many rather than the few or the rich is staggering — at least a billion if all 126 million patients are to be treated.

Where would researchers ever get all those eggs? Certainly not from American women of childbearing age. Even if every such woman in America agreed to be hyper-ovulated once a year, the egg dearth would still be considerable. That could lead to biotech companies scouring the world for destitute women in underdeveloped countries as sources of eggs, exposing these women not only to the risk of side effects but to the potential that medical treatment might not be readily available to them should complications occur. 

Such “techno-colonialism” should be utterly beyond the pale. Yet, seven members who worried about exploiting women for their eggs in CPC apparently did not think that the greater potential of exploitation threatened by CBR warranted an outright ban on human cloning.

One more example: A large part of the case against CPC had to do with the risks to unborn life and the inability of that life to consent to being subjects in cloning experiments. The unanimous council states, “Given that anyone considering creating a cloned child must know that he or she is putting a newly created human life at exceptional risk, the burden on the would-be-cloners seems clear; they must make a compelling case why the procedure should not be avoided altogether.” (My emphasis.)

Well, if an “exceptional risk” to a newly created life places such a heavy burden of proof on would-be-cloners, surely the absolute risk to “newly created human life” in CBR should require that the cloning case not only compelling, but beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet, the case for CBR presented by the council minority isn’t near to either standard. Not when bone marrow stem cells look to be nearly as promising as embryonic stem cells, and indeed, not when adult stem cells have already successfully treated human patients suffering from diseases such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis — some of the very conditions that research cloners only hope may be attempted in a decade or more. 

Chapter 5 of Human Cloning and Human Dignity, “The Ethics of Cloning-to-Produce-Children,” is a rich source of moral inquiry and analysis. Not only does it compellingly demonstrate that cloning-to-produce-children is morally and practically wrong, but ironically, it also makes much of the same case against cloning-for-biomedical research. As such, it is a must read for anyone interested in the cloning debate. 

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.