On Human Cloning: A Secular Feminist Perspective
How should we think about cloning as philosophers and feminists? Reproducing by cloning is not, in itself, morally inferior to reproducing by human sexual reproduction. Moral criticism of cloning in itself rests on condemnation of cloning's "unnaturalness" or "impiety," but this kind of criticism should not persuade non-believers. In this paper, cloning is evaluated in two phases. First, some hypothetical situations involving private choices about cloning are examined within a liberal framework. From this individualistic perspective, cloning appears no more morally problematic than is sexual reproduction. A liberal feminist may welcome the possibility of human cloning, as expanding the range of reproductive options open to women. The second phase argues for a shift in framework of analysis to get a more complete evaluation of the ethical implications of human cloning, including questions of distributive justice and the ideology of reproduction.
In this paper, "cloning" refers to a process begun when an enucleated oocyte receives a complete set of genetic material from one adult of the same species, and then develops. The resultant cloned embryo is genetically identical to the adult supplying the DNA. Thus, cloning differs from sexual reproduction, in which half the genetic material of the fertilized egg is supplied from the oocyte itself and half from the sperm. It is also different from "twinning," in which an egg, once fertilized sexually, splits into two genetically identical zygotes, each of which may develop into an embryo. In February 1997, Dr. Ian Wilmut announced the birth of Dolly, the cloned offspring of an ewe. If it is possible to clone sheep, why not then humans?
Many argue that human cloning would be morally objectionable because it would involve unnatural interference with living processes. For example, Catholic Natural Law theory holds that it is wrong for humans to act in ways that frustrate the course of nature. Nature is divided into species, each with a definite and fixed nature that is describable in terms of a set of natural and divinely ordained goals. Although scientists may intervene in many human living processes, where this would promote Humanity's goals, one may not intervene to change the beginnings of human life, as in cloning. Since one of the human species' key goals is reproduction via heterosexual intercourse in a loving marriage, cloning is wrong, for it uses up in an unnatural process an oocyte that might have developed naturally into a zygote. The distinctions made between "natural" and "unnatural" by this tradition may seem arbitrary. For example, to criticize cloning as "bringing into being lives that could not be produced by unaided natural processes" suggests that surgery or drugs to aid marginally fertile women should also be condemned, but they are not. The argument cannot be made plausible to non-believers, for no independent (non-theological, non-question-begging) criteria for identifying what is contrary to nature or a natural goal can be given. Many popular reservations about cloning (e.g., as "contrary to the sanctity of human life") reduce to a version of Natural Law thinking and are similarly problematic.
Although cloning humans is not a kind of wrongdoing, there are strong moral constraints on any particular cases of cloning, since clones would be persons.
The fantasies that a clone of oneself could be made to carry out one's unwanted tasks or to supply one with "spare parts" in an emergency are both misguided. For they assume that a clone is not a separate person with rights. This must be either because a clone is genetically identical with her DNA-donor, or because of the oddness of her biological origins. However, that twins are genetically identical to each other does not impugn each one's rights. Moreover, cloning from a very young zygote is biologically similar to the process of natural twin-formation. Also, the "unnaturalness" of Louise Brown's origins in IVF has not foreclosed her claims to rights. Further, we should assume that clones are persons, for it is better to risk the inefficiency of treating non-persons as persons than the serious injustice of failing to recognize persons.
Before beginning the case-by-case analysis within a liberal framework, it must be established that cloning does not harm the cloned child, making cloning a permissible private parental choice. Cloning is not harmful, for the clone has no reason to regret her unusual origins. She might not even know about her origins: many children resemble one of their parents, and, in a "clonist" society, she might have been kept ignorant to aid her in "passing." Moreover, in a just society, she would have the same moral and political status as those sexually reproduced. Children's rights are not proportioned to genetic relatedness to their parents: consider adoptees, or those born of incest.
Turning now to some hypothetical cases: would individual decisions to reproduce by cloning inevitably be morally worse than decisions to reproduce sexually? The following cases focus on an individual's decision to reproduce herself by cloning, under various conditions.
Let us imagine an adult wants to clone herself. This could be seen as an unusual case of the recognizable parental desire to mould one's children in one's own image. Cloning seems worse in two ways: the attitude to chance and the overtones of narcissism. This desire to clone apparently involves an excessive desire for control over what one's children will be like. It could only be rational to want to pass on one's whole genetic identity, if one knew more than is currently known about the contributions of nature and nurture to the development of objectively worthwhile human traits. It could only be laudable to act on this desire if one's fundamental concern was the child's good and not, as seems more likely, regarding the future child as a vehicle for selfish projects, c.f. "I want a child just like me, so that I can take care of my Inner Child, but literally;" "I want a child just like me, so that I can develop the musical talent my parents crushed in me."
These kinds of objection also apply to some parents' decisions to reproduce sexually. The moral failure involved in both types of case is failure to treat another person as an end in herself. Thus, though cloning offers a new opportunity for parental attempts to mould children, this is not a novel vice.
A decision to reproduce oneself by cloning may also be a decision not to admit another's genetic contribution to one's children. Both prima facie good and prima facie bad motives can be seen here and, again, cloning offers just a new occasion for exercising our familiar repertoire of virtues and vices.
One can imagine a heterosexual couple, where one partner has a genetically-related disease, having the nucleus of a cell taken from the non-carrier partner and transplanting it into an oocyte from the woman. The moral thinking involved is not different from the decision to refrain from reproducing altogether, where one's only option is traditional sexual reproduction or deciding to reproduce sexually, but using a gamete donor who does not have the problem, where IVF is available. The desire not to transmit the genetically-related problem to one's child is what underlies all these decisions and it seems equally morally laudable in all cases.
One can see a lesbian couple, both of whom want to make a physiological contribution to their child, agreeing that one should supply the egg and the other the nuclear DNA. This parallels heterosexual couples' desire to express their commitment by bearing children who are the union of their flesh, and it is equally intelligible in both cases.
However, a lesbian separatist couple might prefer cloning just because it would require no male gamete. This case raises moral questions that seem strikingly different from sexual reproduction. Yet parallels can be found. In choosing a mate for sexual reproduction, some do consider whether a suitor is a member of a group that is presumed to be genetically distinctive, e.g., of the same or different race. The imagined lesbian separatists have a better grasp of genetics, whatever one makes of the implicit essentialism.
A further kind of case involves a heterosexual couple in which the male asserts his dominance by insisting that the children carried by his female partner bear only his genes; she is to be merely the receptacle and incubator of his line. This case can be analyzed in the same terms as cases of sexual reproduction where the male's reproductive preferences determine what occurs (e.g., whether or not a particular pregnancy be carried to term). The form of wrongdoing common to these cases is that the man treats his female partner merely as a means to his own reproductive projects, rather than as a moral equal.
The conclusion from these cases is that, although none of the scenarios has been subjected to exhaustive analysis, we have seen no evidence that individual decisions to clone are inevitably worse than decisions to reproduce sexually. Popular scaremongers focus only on obviously villainous individual motives for cloning, without considering a range of scenarios. To dismiss cloning on these grounds would be as unfair as to forbid sexual reproduction on the grounds that bad people may reproduce sexually for nefarious reasons.
A liberal feminist, who is concerned with expanding the opportunities for individual women to satisfy the desires they currently have, might then welcome the possibility of human cloning. For cloning offers another method for increasing women's reproductive choices.
Transition to the second phase of argument begins with the observation that individual decisions to reproduce sexually are, in fact, rarely subjected to moral scrutiny. In popular moralizing discourse, the default assumption applied to "normal" cases is that one needs no moral justification for reproducing sexually. Whatever one's motives, one has the right to reproduce sexually (- hence concern about the "one-child" policy in China, for example) and perhaps even a social and religious obligation to do so (c.f., "Go forth and multiply.") Moral reflection is provoked only where a couple decides not to have children at all, or where they would employ contraceptive measures or abortion in order to limit family size, or where the case is not "normal." A case is "normal" unless the couple transgresses various culturally constructed norms e.g., is a "mixed-race" couple; a lesbian couple; a couple where the woman is over 50; a couple where at least one partner is disabled in some way; a poor couple; a single woman. In these "abnormal" cases, the default assumption is that it would be immoral to reproduce or to introduce children into the household. Popular focus shifts from protecting parental privacy rights to protecting children from the presumed harms of living outside socially sanctioned child-rearing contexts.
Popular discussion and public policy decisions about reproductive technologies reflect these patterns. Usage of reproductive technology is permissible where it can be construed as augmenting normal/ natural patterns of reproduction, e.g., access to IVF technology should be restricted to infertile, but otherwise healthy - including financially healthy - heterosexual married couples. A major source of popular anxiety about the possibility of human cloning is that it might encourage the production of children outside contexts that are culturally sanctioned as "normal/ natural."
A more systematic analysis is needed to come to terms with the possibility of human cloning. For the case-by-case ethical analysis above did not look into such questions as: How come this infertile couple has the occasion to choose between employing an expensive new reproductive technique such as cloning and adoption, but that (perhaps poor, or gay) infertile couple has no such dilemma to face? Some ethical dilemmas are an expression of social privilege. Nor did the case-by-case analysis look into such questions as: Why do people who want a child, want a child who is "theirs" in the sense that blurs property ownership and biology? (That is, why want a child who carries some of one's genes - why clone rather than adopt, for example?) Why would a woman who wants a child undergo the physical, financial and emotional risks involved in embryo transfer, let alone the transfer of a clone, rather than adopt? Why was it so easy to neglect consideration of possible risks to the woman who gestates the clone above, once it had been established that being born a clone is not bad for the clone? Why does the desire for a significant relationship with a child take the form of wanting a child in one's own home, rather than wanting to have an enduring relationship with a child who regularly plays in one's yard (why clone rather than volunteering in a kindergarten, for example)? The occurrence of some patterns of preferences and desires in particular kinds of individuals may be an expression of problematic or oppressive cultural values.
In contemporary attitudes to reproduction, we can identify a number of strands. The first is "pronatalism:" normal people should reproduce and for such folk not to have children is seen as a misfortune or a sign of morally culpable selfishness or disordered priorities. The second is the "privatization" of children - primary responsibility for children is assigned to specific adults, usually their biological parents, and primary access to children is granted to those same parents. Thus the pleasures and travails of child-rearing are seen as episodes in their parents' private lives, rather than as matters for public or collective concern and celebration. The third idea is that bearing children is a crucial part of a woman's identity. Even though most women engage in paid work outside the home, women are still expected naturally to find their primary source of gratification in their role as mothers. Thus, infertility in a married woman is understood to be a great misfortune that she would naturally be prepared to take any physical, emotional or financial risk to overcome. These ideas about women's roles converge with the deprecation of anything associated with women in our sexist society. Thus, although being a mother is woman's highest destiny, it is still a contribution of lesser worth to society than the male work of ruling and earning, and it is not really "work." Women who now work as surrogates, gestating embryos for commercial gain, are paid upon delivery of the baby, not for their daily tasks of eating well, exercising appropriately and so on, and they are paid a great deal less than the male scientists who implant the embryos.
I conclude with a call for more reflection on the implications of human cloning for women situated in different positions in post-industrial Western society, which is characterized by divisions by class, race, sex, sexual orientation, degree of physical ability, and age. Will the possibility of human cloning reinforce a tendency to see women as nothing but passive incubators? Will cloning be seized on as a method for reinventing the family? Will cloning become just one more prerogative of the rich and will the exploited underclass of paid surrogate mothers expand? In addition to speculating on the possible consequences, should human cloning become a technical possibility, we must also attempt to evaluate ways in which this possibility might contribute to or curtail women's emancipation.