20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Bioethics and Medical Ethics

The Cloning of Human Beings*

Susan Anderson
University of Connecticut

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: I examine five concerns held by the general population regarding human cloning and argue that they show either a misunderstanding about the process and/or result of cloning, or else ignorance about what we already do. Put differently, I argue that human cloning is not in principle more questionable than other current practices. However, I do have serious concerns about the uses to which the new technology will be put. I argue that the reasons currently proposed for human cloning are not persuasive. My position is that human cloning is not objectionable in principle, but practical application of the technology raises serious concerns. In my opinion, present circumstances do not seem to warrant it.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

As soon as Scottish scientists announced that they had successfully cloned a sheep from cells of another sheep, people began to be alarmed at the prospect of cloning human beings. Editorial after editorial warned that we'd be "playing God", that we'd be creating Frankenstein-like soul-less creatures, and that we'd be encouraging people's tendency towards egoism to reach its ultimate expression by enabling human beings to clone themselves. President Clinton banned all federal funding for research leading to the cloning of human beings and called for a voluntary moratorium on private research. Pope John Paul II denounced "dangerous experiments" that harm human dignity.

I, too, have some concerns about cloning human beings; but I think that most of the fears people have are misplaced. As a philosopher who has worked on issues concerning personal identity and, more recently, medical ethics, I have a different perspective on the issue of human cloning from most commentators. Perhaps I can make a useful contribution to the discussion of this topic.

I would, first, like to examine five concerns the general population seems to have about cloning human beings and argue that they show either a misunderstanding about the process and/or result of cloning, or else an ignorance of what it is that we already do. I shall argue that there is nothing in principle more questionable about the cloning of human beings than practices we currently engage in. However, I do have two serious concerns about how the new technology is likely to be used; and, since I am not convinced that that there are any really good reasons at the present time for cloning human beings, I too would vote against permitting it.


1. It has been claimed that if we cloned human beings that we'd be "playing God." What does this mean? Presumably it does not mean that we would be, through our actions, creating a (human) life because that has been going on since Adam and Eve. Is it, rather, the idea that scientists would be involved in the process of creating life, rather than life resulting through the "natural" means of sexual intercourse? But this is nothing new. Artificial insemination, the use of fertility drugs, and in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques have been used to create children who would not have existed without the help or interference (depending upon whether you approve of the practices or not) of modern science. So anyone who argues that the cloning of human beings is wrong because scientists are involved in the process of creating a human life should not be objecting to the cloning of human beings in particular. They should also be opposed to other medical techniques which have been used to help childless couples and single women have children who would not have been able to otherwise.

Furthermore, those who object to cloning simply on the grounds that it's "unnatural" (rather than the more specific "unnatural creation of human life") should also be objecting to the use of antibiotics, surgery, vaccinations, etc., which prolong life unnaturally. They should similarly object to hair-coloring, synthetic clothing, air-conditioning, the use of sun-screen and the like.

It seems doubtful that when people criticize human cloning on the grounds that we'd be "playing God" that what is really bothering them is that it is "unnatural" because a) there's nothing new about that and b) very few people would, if pressed, advocate that we should live totally "natural" lives (whatever that would mean).

Since most people don't have as negative a reaction to the use of artificial insemination, fertility drugs or IVF technology to create a child as they do to the idea of creating a human being through cloning, it isn't just the use of modern technology to assist in the creation of human life which bothers them. Perhaps it is felt that we'd be "playing God" more by creating a child through cloning than, say, IVF because we would be creating a particular child. Instead of a process by which "you get what you get," cloning seems to make it possible to create exactly the person you want.

There are two problems, however, with this view. First, it assumes that children created in other ways have whatever qualities they have by chance. We must simply wait to see what we get. But that certainly is no longer true. Couples considering creating a child through sexual intercourse can find out quite a bit about the probable and, in some cases, certain qualities of their prospective children. And artificial insemination and IVF technologies enable people to increase the odds that a child will have certain qualities (or won't have certain negative qualities). Furthermore, IVF technology makes it possible to decide which embryo(s) to implant after a DNA analysis is performed so it is already possible to choose to bring a particular child (or even identical twins) into existence.(If this is not yet feasible, it surely will be soon.) It is even possible, with preimplantation diagnosis (PID) to implant one identical twin and freeze the other for future use, if the parents like the way the first one turned out. This is very close to the results of cloning.

Second, it is assumes that one can know exactly what a person created through cloning would be like. But this is just not true. We know, as a result of studies of identical twins ("natural" clones) reared apart, that one's experiences, one's environment plays a role in determining what a person becomes. We may be able to make some predictions about what a clone will ultimately turn out to be like, but we will not be able to predict everything about what this person will be like because no other person has had, or will have, this person's life experiences.

I don't really understand how we'd be "playing God" in a substantially stronger sense if we were to clone human beings than, say, create them through IVF technology.

2. People are concerned that allowing the cloning of human beings could lead to the ultimate avenue of expression of people's (supposed) tendency towards "narcissism and megalomania" : "Make me my heir."

A Time/CNN poll, taken right after the cloning story broke, showed that only 7 % of Americans would want to clone themselves, so this argument rests on an apparently incorrect factual assumption: that humans beings generally are extremely narcissistic. But even one such person wanting to clone him/herself might be thought to be cause for concern.

Without getting into a discussion of whether or not it is wrong to love oneself that much, the idea that one could make oneself one's heir or, in the case of a woman, give birth to oneself demonstrates an ignorance of the cloning process and/or what we have leaned about the "nature vs. nurture" debate. It also shows that there is a confusion between "exactly similar" and "identical".

To clone an adult human being through somatic cell nuclear transfer and implantation (the technique used to create Dolly) would necessarily create a considerably younger person rather than an identical twin (a person of the same age who has the same DNA). This person would necessarily grow up in a different environment, since, at the very least, the "times" would be different. And, as has already been noted, we have learned from the studies of identical twins reared apart that environmental factors do make a difference. So there is no reason to think that one's clone would turn out to be exactly like oneself.

Even if it were possible to duplicate a person's upbringing such that the person's clone would turn out to be exactly similar, it would not be that same person. There are three general philosophical theories of personal identity, that is three views which specify criteria for A and B being considered to be the same person, and one's clone would not be considered to be the same person as oneself under any of these theories.

The first general theory of personal identity uses a bodily criterion. A is said to be the same person as B if they have the same body, or crucial body part (e.g. brain). Now even if a person and his/her clone have exactly similar bodies (or brains), they will not be the same person using this criterion because they will not have the same body (or brain) since they will be located in different places.

The second theory of personal identity maintains that A and B can be said to be the same person if they have the same underlying mental substance (what laymen call "soul"). Assuming that human beings do have non-material souls, there is no reason to think that one's clone will have the same soul as oneself, not any more than in the case of identical twins.

The third, and probably the most popular theory in philosophical circles, maintains that A and B can be said to be the same person just in case there is causally explained overlap between the mental experiences of the two. Again, this criterion would rule out oneself and one's clone being considered to be the same person. The mental experiences may be similar, even exactly similar, but the required causal relationship will not exist between one's own mental experiences and one's clone's.

3. It has been said that a cloned human being wouldn't have a soul, wouldn't be a unique individual; but clones would not be any less full human beings than the originals. If we have souls, then so would they. They would be no less their own persons than identical twins are. Furthermore, they would probably be more unlike their originals than identical twins are dissimilar because they would develop at different times in different environments.

4. Some have maintained that a cloned person would suffer, having foreknowledge of powerful genetic predispositions. The reality is that very soon we will all have this information, given the speed with which the Human Genome Project and other researchers are uncovering facts about genetic predispositions.

5. Many have claimed that cloning human beings would violate human dignity, particularly since it takes many attempts to successfully create a human being. Thus, it could be said that we would be behaving in a way which is quite careless with human life in its early stages. What about abortion, which permits women to destroy potential human beings? And consider the fact that IVF technology is used to create many human embryos, only some of which are implanted (others are frozen, just in case they're needed, and then eventually discarded) and, of those which are implanted, few actually develop into human beings. I don't see how we would be any more careless with human life, should we clone human beings, than we are at present. (There are plausible arguments for banning all these practices. My point is just that cloning human beings would be no worse than practices we already engage in.)


Even though I am not impressed with the criticisms people have given which are supposed to apply uniquely to the cloning of human beings — none of them have convinced me that it is any more wrong in principle than practices which we already engage in — I am troubled by the probable uses of the procedure should it be made available. In particular, I have two concerns:

1. Many of the proposed uses of cloning human beings (e.g. ensuring that there will be a supply of organ donors) involve using a human being (and, again, make no mistake, a human clone would be a human being) as a means to accomplish an end of some other human being(s). This violates Kant's intuitively valid ethical principle that persons should always be treated as ends in themselves, never as a means of satisfying other persons' ends. Using persons for other persons' purposes would involve treating human beings with less than the respect which they deserve; it would deny them their autonomy.

It can be said that we all use others, e.g. an employer uses his employee; but, I believe that creating a clone for a specific purpose is different and more objectionable because we would be bringing a human being into existence just for that purpose, rather than attempting to use an already existing human being. There is less choice involved for the one being "used". (I have heard of parents trying to conceive a child in hopes of getting a tissue match for a bone marrow transplant for an older sibling. If this is the only reason for having the child, I find it to be, similarly, morally objectionable.)

2. Others have proposed that we clone outstanding human beings with the idea of improving the human race. I think this is a very dangerous idea. Of course we all have a tendency to make individual judgments that person x is a better person than person y, but I don't think we want to, as a society, encourage this kind of thinking. We would start looking at one another (already existing human beings) critically, rather than just accepting people for what they are, to see whether they are "worthy" of being cloned. (Imagine Hitler with this technology!) There are already enough sources of divisiveness among human beings without adding this new one. And, although I'm not a scientist, it seems likely that attempts to create human beings with more desirable traits could have harmful consequences down the road. (Less variety in the gene pool, for instance, could weaken the species.) So using human cloning to create ideal persons is cause for concern.


Are there legitimate/justifiable uses for human cloning? I have heard two uses proposed and I can imagine a utilitarian giving a third one:

1. Allowing human cloning would finally allow us to resolve the "nature vs. nurture" debate. We could simply see whether the two genetically identical persons (persons and their clones) who are raised in different environments turn out to be the same or different. But we have already been able to test the importance of environment, in this way, because (as I mentioned earlier) we have had natural clones (identical twins) who have been reared apart to compare.

2. Cloning would allow a single person to have a child without the involvement of any other persons (who might, somewhere down the road, initiate a custody fight for the child). This could be thought of as an ideal way for homosexual men, for instance, to have children.

There are serious psychological and social issues at stake here. Do children fare as well being raised by a single parent, or parents of a single sex (the homosexual parent may have a partner)? Would this be likely to lead to fewer people getting married, because it may eliminate one of the main reasons why many people get married, and could this be harmful to society? Could problems develop between a parent and child who are too much alike? Could the parent have unrealistic expectations or the parent/child unfounded fears because of the cloning relationship?

Since I cannot answer any of these questions, I will instead make three other points which, taken together, suggest that this is not a good reason for allowing human cloning, particularly at this time.

First, it is not possible for a man to create a child without a woman's cooperation, even using cloning technology. An egg would have to be used, which would have to come from some woman; and, until we invent artificial wombs, some woman would have to carry the fertilized egg to term (or until such time when it would be viable). A woman, on the other hand, could have a child though this technology without involving a man; but it is already quite easy for a single woman to have a child, one which would even be hers biologically, without having a relationship with a man. She could be artificially inseminated, with virtually no risk of the sperm donor claiming parental rights.

But what of the man or woman who would still find it easier or less risky (it might be less likely that someone would later try to claim parental rights and there would be fewer surprises about what the child would turn out to be like) to have a child using the technique of cloning. Couldn't it be maintained that all persons (regardless of sexual orientation or marriage status) have a right to at least one healthy child, preferably a child to whom one is biologically related? And, it might be argued, if human cloning could be used to secure this right then we should allow it. I don't think people have this right. People have never had this right before and the fact that new technology makes something possible doesn't give us all a right to the use of the new technology.

Finally, I don't think that we should be trying to increase the human population, in an already overpopulated world, particularly when there are many children already in existence who need to be adopted.

3. A utilitarian might argue that human cloning should be permitted if it can be shown that society has need for a particular type of person, and this can be done without in any way implying that this type of person is better than others. It could be the case, for instance, that what we most need is people who would be satisfied doing menial jobs.

I could imagine at least one set of circumstances such that there could be a "pressing need" for more of certain persons: Some sort of terrible illness, which affects only males, has claimed the lives of all but a handful of men who happen to been made sterile by the illness. It could be argued in this case, that to ensure the survival of the human race, the few men left should be cloned (with their permission and the permission of the women whose eggs and wombs are used). This seems reasonable to me, and confirms my earlier point that the cloning of human beings is probably not immoral in principle, but it would take extreme circumstances such as these to offset the potential danger that cloned human beings would be created to serve the ends of others. In this example, we only desire that the cloned human beings be males (notice that it's not the case that particular males are desired, but it's the only way to ensure that there will be males who could reproduce) who will, hopefully, reproduce. This doesn't seem to be terribly objectionable. (If we force the clones to mate, that's another story.)

But consider the case of cloning those human beings who happen to be satisfied doing menial jobs, in the hopes of, say, increasing the number of people willing to be garbage collectors. (We'll assume that we haven't been able to mechanize this job and that increasing the wages hasn't lured enough people into this occupation.) Think about it. We'd be creating human beings with the expectation that they would serve our needs. Not only would this involve treating a class of human beings with less than the respect which they deserve, but we would not be guaranteed the results we desire. What if some of these clones decide that they don't want to collect garbage? They might be able, and decide, to make more money, more pleasantly, being interviewed on talk shows!

I believe that it would take some sort of catastrophe, and very minimal expectations of what we'd hope these clones would be like, to justify the cloning of human beings. So, although I don't find the cloning of human beings to be objectionable in principle as most people seem to believe it is, the practical application of the technology concerns me very much. Present circumstances don't seem to warrant it.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


* I would like to thank Ellen Manewal, George McManus and Joe Stoever for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage