Call 413.540.1234 to
schedule an appointment
CONCERN/EAP: 413.534.2625
CRISIS: 413.733.6661

Health Policy & Advocacy
Basic InformationMore InformationLatest NewsQuestions and AnswersLinksBook Reviews
Related Topics
by Barbara MacKinnon (editor)
University of Illinois Press, 2000
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001

Human CloningIn 1997, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission called for a five-year moratorium on human cloning. At the end of that period, the issue was to be reviewed, in the light of scientific advances and of public discussion of its feasibility and morality. This book is a collection of papers presented at a conference held at the University of San Francisco, in response to the NBAC's call for discussion. It brings together philosophers, scientists, and other academics with an interest in bioethics and public policy.

The book is divided into three sections, corresponding to its tripartite sub-title. The first section, science, consists of contributions by George Seidel and Richard Lewontin, both of whom make the same fundamental point: cloning does not reproduce identical individuals, not even physically identical individuals. Each clone will have different mitochondrial DNA, which is probably responsible for some conformational differences between individuals. Moreover, even if we were able to produce clones with identical mitochondrial DNA, they would still not be physically identical. There would still be epigenetic differences between them: differences which arise as a result of the randomness that effects some biological processes. Hair color is Seidel's most striking example. Hair is dependent upon the "invasion" of follicles by melanin, a process which occurs during embryonic development. The pattern of this invasion depends somewhat on chance; thus genetically identical individuals will have somewhat different coloring.

Richard Lewontin's contribution focuses especially on the notion that there is such a thing as the best genes. By examining the performance of genetically identical plants in different environments, he shows that we can speak correctly only of the best genes for a particular environment. One plant might flourish at a certain altitude, while another languishes. In a different environment, it might be the first which languishes, while the supposedly inferior plant now thrives. There just is no such thing as the best genes overall. Add to this the fact that genes do not determine the resulting individuals to anything like the extent usually held, Lewontin believes, and the motivation for cloning humans disappears.

And indeed, many of the ethical arguments, both for and against cloning that have been advanced in recent years are shown to have little force once the science is understood. Fortunately, most of the contributors to the 'ethics' section of the book have a sufficient grasp of the science to avoid the wilder claims which are sometimes thrown about. Unfortunately, all the arguments canvassed have already been adequately discussed elsewhere-in the essays collected in Gregory Pence's Flesh of My Flesh: The Ethics of Human Cloning, for instance (which shares several contributors with this volume). Perhaps this is a function of the three year delay between the holding of the conference and the book's publication.

Nevertheless, for the newcomer to the debate, the contributions are helpful. Especially useful is Bonnie Steinbocks' lightning tour of the main arguments against cloning. Philip Kitcher examines scenarios under which human cloning-once it has been shown to be reasonably safe-might be permissible, while Jorge Garcia puts forward arguments against cloning he considers conclusive. This last contribution is in many ways the most interesting, because it is so combative, but it is also somewhat sloppy. Garcia quotes his opponents out of context, fails to consider obvious replies to his line of argument and simply fails to provide any evidence for some of his central contentions. The anti-cloning case has been argued more convincingly by Leon Kass, in his contribution to the Pence collection mentioned above.

The final section of the book is concerned with public policy. It includes a contribution from R. Alta Charo, a member of the NBAC, on the reasoning the Commission used in recommending a moratorium. In the end, the NBAC found only one anti-cloning argument persuasive: that cloning was unsafe for the cloned child. The fact that no other anti-cloning argument convinced the commission explains its opting of a moratorium, rather than a permanent ban. We can expect the technology to improve, to the extent that risks of harm should fall to a level comparable with those attached to other assisted reproduction technologies.

Andrea Bonnicksen provides an illuminating sketch of the public policy context. As she points out, public resistance to cloning is likely to gradually dissipate as the science advances. She believes that in an environment characterized by such incrementalism, the best response is to adopt a policy, not a law. This would allow stake-holders to set voluntary guidelines for the technology, without preventing the development of new and potentially beneficial advances. We do not need a law against human cloning, she argues, because it is not imminent. Unfortunately, Bonnicksen seems to have been overtaken by events on this score. Attempts by groups both inside and outside the United States to clone a human being are now well advanced, according to recent news reports. John Robertson examines the policy challenges which will confront us once human cloning is safe and effective. He explores issues of family relationships and the strains these might come under once we have the possibility of bearing a child that is genetically identical to our parents, or to a deceased spouse. As Robertson concludes, cloning will force us to confront the genetic meaning of family.

The collection concludes with the reflections of Susanne Hunter, who argues that we ought not to ban the technique of cloning-nor indeed any other medical technique-but instead focus on the outcomes we wish to avoid. Banning human cloning would prevent the development of potentially beneficial advances in human medicine, she argues. Hunter is an advocate of a free-market, who worries that excessive regulation will distort the market by raising entry costs to it. Strangely, she is unconcerned that massive government funding of medical research will be equally distorting.

All in all, this collection is a useful introduction to the cloning debate. It is distinguished from its competitors on the market-of which there are several-mainly by its valuable contributions on the science of cloning. Like its competitors, however, it fails to confront the central issue, the question that usually motivates the desire to clone at all. Why think it is important to have children who are biologically related to one? What is so important about a genetic connection to one's children? Until this question is answered, we will be unable adequately to answer the question whether cloning should be made available to those who are unable to reproduce in any other way.

© 2001 Neil Levy

Dr Neil Levy is a fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.

This review first appeared online Sept 2, 2001