DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L142-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2003
Retrieved June 04, 2020, from

4. Ethical issues: reproductive applications

The potential therapeutic importance of CNR is widely recognized. International organizations also acknowledge that the benefits of CNR may be great. However, the birth of Dolly created such panic that international organizations were practically queuing up to condemn reproductive cloning (see below, International declarations). Reproductive cloning is currently either illegal or in practice prohibited almost everywhere (House of Lords 2002: 35). This universal ban is expressive of a number of ethical concerns that surround CNR, even in its non-reproductive applications. This section outlines the main ethical issues regarding the reproductive applications of CNR.

Once a healthy embryo is created through CNR, it may be implanted into a viable womb and, in some cases, it may be brought to term (the Dolly procedure). The vast majority of scientists today consider CNR not to be a realistic means for reproduction, given the technical problems and the high risks of malformation for fetuses and mortality currently associated with CNR in other mammals (see §3).

However, many objections are used against reproductive use of CNR that appeal to principles and hence go beyond the essentially practical – and probably soluble – problem of the feasibility of the procedure.

  1. Cloning is contrary to human dignity. This is one of the most widespread and poorly articulated objections to cloning. It is unclear what is meant by ‘dignity’ and how CNR may offend it. Perhaps what is meant here is that CNR may deprive a person of their own identity and therefore threaten their freedom: the cloned person would be ‘forced’ to ‘repeat’ the life of the person from whom they have been cloned (Neri 2001: 59). Such objections assume that uniqueness and freedom depend on the genes and on the genetic makeup of an individual (genetic determinism). This assumption has no scientific ground, as personality is the result of a number of elements, including environmental factors, experiences, external influences, upbringing, etc. (2001: 60).

  2. Designer children and ‘playing God’. Some believe that deliberate interference in the natural process of reproduction is unethical. The creation of an embryo without fertilization (without the ‘meeting’ of two gametes) may, from this point of view, be considered an ethically repugnant event – this is sometimes encapsulated as an objection to humans ‘playing God’. The underlying idea here is that it is ethical to let nature run its course. However, if it is unethical to ‘force nature’ in directions that it would not otherwise take, and if this is ‘playing God’, then many interventions in the ‘natural world’ that we consider beneficial or even essential to the survival of our species should be considered unacceptable. The whole practice of medicine, which is an attempt to prevent or alter things that naturally occur, namely illness, disease, injury and premature death, should from this point of view be considered unethical – humans playing God (Harris 1980). Moreover, one may ask whether it is true that random chance is certainly and always better than deliberate choice (Buchanan et al. 2000). If the genome to be cloned is healthy and so probably the resulting child will be healthy, then would it be responsible to go in for the sort of genetic Russian roulette involved in sexual reproduction when a ‘tried and tested’ genome could be utilized with known susceptibilities to genetic illness and good predictive profile as to life expectancy and future genetically influenced illness?

  3. The right to genetic identity. It is sometimes argued that human beings have a right to genetic identity, and that CNR would violate this right, in that the child would be genetically identical to the nucleus’ donor. It is not clear why there should be any such thing as a right to genetic identity or how it could be enforced. We know that one in roughly every 270 births results in identical (monozygotic) twins. However, a twin birth is not seen as a tragedy or as regrettable, nor, more significantly, as an affront to the dignity or the genetic identity of the monozygotic siblings. In most cases a cloned baby would be less, rather than more, identical to the nucleus’ donor than would identical twins, as the clone usually inherits different mitochondrial DNA. The problem with cloning and identity seems to lie again in a misconception about CNR. Disproportionate significance is attached to genetic makeup. People believe that if a baby is born by CNR it will be identical to another person, but in fact it never will.

  4. The well-being of the child. It is sometimes thought that the child born by CNR would be disadvantaged. It may be argued that since the child born as a result of CNR would not otherwise have existed, it is obviously in that child’s overall interests to have been the product of CNR so long as its life is worth living. It could be the case that cloned children might be disadvantaged compared to other children either because of some disadvantages conferred by the cloning process, such as malformation and abnormal development (see §3), or because of the expectations of those who created the clone. But again such disadvantages would have to be significant and irremediable to constitute grounds for prohibiting cloning, rather than merely preferring other methods of procreation if available. It is worth noticing that the same worries that surround CNR were once raised about IVF, but although it may be argued that being born by sexual reproduction is better than being born by IVF, this is not considered a good reason to rule out IVF for those who need it. There are of course many conditions that may be considered disadvantageous for the child. The most reliable predictor of bad outcomes for children and the most extensively researched is poverty, but few suggest that the poor should not be permitted to reproduce (Burley and Harris 1999; Harris 2000).

  5. Instrumentalization of the child. It is sometimes argued that procreation by CNR would involve an ethically unacceptable instrumentalization of the new-born child. Those who make this objection need to explain in what the instrumentalization would consist, in what sense that practice instrumentalizes the ‘victim’, and indeed what precisely the wrong of instrumentalization is. People have children for a variety of reasons, and children are always in some sense ‘an instrument’ – for happiness, for satisfying maternal/paternal inclinations etc., and it is unclear in what sense the cloned baby would be more instrumentalized than any other child, in virtue of the fact that it was born by CNR rather than by IVF or sexual intercourse. Some may believe that the cloned child would be instrumentalized in cases in which people may want a clone of a baby that they may have lost. The clone would in these cases be the instrument of the parents’ wish to have ‘their baby back’. However, it is reasonable to believe that some couples who have had the misfortune to lose a child will want another baby, in some sense ‘to replace’ the lost child, and it is unclear why this would be unethical.

  6. Unpredictable psycho-social consequences. The psycho-social consequences of adding cloning to the methods of reproduction are unpredictable. But unpredictability is inherent in any procreation, and unless serious irreversible harm to the child, or to any other party, is likely to result, the argument of unpredictability is not sufficient. It is instead a good reason to investigate the likely consequences at a psychological and social level, and ‘the best way’ of preparing a child for knowledge about the way in which it was brought into the world.

  7. Modification of the gene pool. Another objection to reproductive CNR concerns the effects of the technique on the gene pool. It is sometime said that the variety of the human gene pool may be altered with unpredictable results. However, if CNR were a viable fertility option, it is clear that its incidence would be too small to have any measurable, let alone significant, effect on the human genetic pool. And even were it to become an option on a large scale (but now we are only speculating), there could be methods to prevent any potentially dangerous alterations of the pool.

  8. Genetic enhancement. It is sometimes said that cloning could be used for genetic enhancement of human beings, but this idea rests on a simple mistake. Cloning only repeats an existing genome, and does not enhance it. Contrast normal sexual reproduction, which may enhance it through a lucky accidental combination of genes (or, unlucky, for those who believe genetic enhancement to be a bad thing).

Citing this article:
Harris, John and Simona Giordano. Ethical issues: reproductive applications. Cloning, 2003, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L142-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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