A Choice or Genetic Child Abuse?

Tom Kisken


Before explaining why he advocates human cloning, medical ethicist Gregory Pence asks people to turn off the science-fiction movie running in their minds.

Dismiss the fear of breeding a race of Adolf Hitlers. Stockpiling beings who would be lobotomized, their organs used by doctors as spare parts. Siring a slave race. Duplicating a child who has been killed in a tragedy.

“It’s bunk, stupid and ignorant,” said the University of Alabama at Birmingham professor who will present his case at a Calabasas debate on Wednesday. “It’s the word ‘cloning.’ We’ve been conditioned to have these images to it.”

Pence, who wrote Who’s Afraid of Human Cloning, said the procedure could potentially be a reproductive tool for sterile couples who have no other biological options. The resulting child would be physically identical to the genetic sire, but would have his or her own personality and intellect.

But Nigel Cameron, an ethicist and theologian who has testified on cloning before Congress and will face Pence in Wednesday’s debate, takes quite a different view.

Consider a scenario in which a couple uses cloning as a reproductive tool and borrows DNA from the husband. The child is his mother’s son but is genetically his father’s identical twin brother.

“You’re basically taking the family tree and twisting it,” he said.

The debate on cloning has been dominated by discussion about consequences and for good reason, he said.

“Hardly anyone has defended it because it’s indefensible.” said Cameron, advisory board chairman for the Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity in Deerfield, Ill. “It is inherently subversive to the dignity of the child. There is no conceivable situation in which a child brought into being through cloning would not be radically disadvantaged. It’s a copy. It has been manufactured.”

New millennium or not, the mention of human cloning carries supernatural connotations that can make people wonder if they’ve been tricked into reading Ray Bradbury. But Cameron and Pence agree that just as the world was shocked by the birth of Dolly, the lamb cloned four years ago, people will soon be talking about the first human duplicate.

“We’re going to hear about it sometime in the next five years,” Cameron said. “It could be tomorrow morning.”

Certainly, the maternal laboratory has been growing at a head-spinning pace.

In addition to Dolly, there are four Scottish rams, 22 Hawaiian mice, four Japanese bull calves and five Virginian piglets. In anticipation of further developments, a Texas company has said it will clone people’s pets.

Germany has banned human cloning and a host of nations have signed a treaty endorsing a similar prohibition. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has asserted its authority and intentions to stop any cloning attempts. Congress has considered, but not passed, several proposed bans.

California passed a human cloning ban in 1997, shortly after the birth of Dolly, and has formed an advisory committee to study the issue.

Pence, who lectures in medical and philosophy classes, worries prohibitions paint society into a corner where it would be unable to take advantage of future scientific discoveries related to cloning. He remembers the urgent protests against in-vitro fertilization in the 1970s, before science and much of society embraced the procedure.

When people get into these apple-pie-and-motherhood issues, they tend to make laws based on the gut rather than logic and evidence,” he said, advocating additional research and even regulation of cloning anything but a ban. “You’re saying there’s no human need that would ever legitimize this option. I believe that’s false.”

Cloning is not so much of a human Xerox machine as it is a laboratory process that creates identical twins, Pence said. They may share extraordinary similarities but would be independent, free-thinking individuals.

Cameron, who argues human cloning should be banned, said the practice would reduce life to something that is copied instead of created.

“The problem is, it’s a choice,” he said. “It’s all about power. If you owe your existence to someone else’s choice, someone else’s plan, you’re only one step away from being a commodity. A child is not a puppy.”

He called it “genetic child abuse.”

But Pence says cloning could provide a choice. Though people are repelled at a scenario in which a child dies in a car accident and is then cloned by grief-stricken parents, they don’t have the same outrage when parents in a similar situation decide to have a naturally born baby.

“It’s basically the same thing,” he said, adding that he trusts parents’ ability to make the right choice more than he trusts the government.

Cameron’s confidence in society’s determination of right and wrong evaporates when he surfs the Internet and sees sperm and ovum donors marketing their wares. He doesn’t think it’s an exaggeration to predict that some parents would try to clone Madonna or Tom Cruise.

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