Who's afraid of reproductive cloning?
To partially get back to biology after posting about politics and economics: a post on reasons for opposing reproductive cloning. Everyone seems to oppose it reflexively, especially people in favor of therapeutic cloning. (It's as if to say, "Look, I'm not in favor of all biotechnology!") But reflexive opposition does little to advance serious reflection of the ethics of cloning; so, here I go...
To be clear on terms: cloning is when you take a nucleus from an adult cell, put it into a de-nucleated egg cell, and then stimulate the egg to divide and form an embryo that is (for all intents and purposes) genetically identical to the adult that donated the nucleus. In therapeutic cloning, the purpose is to create a ball of cells after a few days, from which you can harvest embryonic stem cells. In reproductive cloning, the purpose is to create a full adult organism that would be genetically identical to the individual that donated the transplanted nucleus.
The most obvious reason to ban reproductive cloning is safety. Reproductive cloning hardly works at all in animals, and if we tried it in humans, we'd almost certainly create babies with horrible birth defects. Even if we got it working, it probably wouldn't be as safe as regular fertilization, and even the tiniest risk would be a significant reason not to do it. (Though minimal risks would not necessarily be prohibitive.)
But for many people, it goes beyond that. Even if there already existed a perfectly safe and reliable way to carry out reproductive cloning, they would still oppose it. Why?
We can dispense immediately with the argument that cloning is "unnatural" or amounts to human "defiance of nature." In vitro fertilization is unnatural too, and most people don't object to that anymore. For that matter, all medical interventions are in one sense or another "unnatural," so opposition to cloning has to come from another source. In any case, "natural" is not necessarily "good."
More serious is the idea that you'd be destroying personal identity. After all, you're creating a clone of yourself! (It's like the movie Multiplicity!) However, this misunderstands the nature of the genome and succumbs to genetic determinism. You are not made up of your genes; you are made up of a very complex and unique pattern of protein, lipids, sugars, etc; your identity is coded in the pattern of neurons and synapses firing in your brain. This pattern is not entirely determined by your genes. Just look at identical twins, who are very similar but not entirely identical. A cloned human would probably be even more dissimilar than an identical twin, because a cloned human would grow inside a different woman's uterus, and receive different influences during pregnancy. So it's really not true that your clone would be in any significant way the "same person" as you.
I am open, however, to the possibility that cloning could create the perception of the loss of identity. That is, the cloned child would grow up knowing that his identical twin had already lived part or all of his life. Even though this doesn't really compromise his personal identity in reality, as I argued in the previous paragraph, perhaps the perception of such a compromise would be enough. After all, we all subconsciously depend on believing that we have autonomy and free will to act morally responsible, whether or not free will "really" exists; if you grew up doubting this (in more ways than just wondering whether free will in general is an illusion), your sense of free will would be compromised -- even though, as I said, this sense would be mistaken. (One could also argue that identity is subjective and socially constructed anyway, so my distinction between 'real' identity and 'perceived' identity cannot be sustained. Fair enough. But at least a perceived loss of identity with little rational basis could potentially be overturned.)
However, this is not, I think, a problem inherent in cloning per se, but rather a problem in the perception of cloning. (Similar to this are scenarios where people treat cloned children as outcasts or weirdos; where the parents think the cloned child has to "live up to" the person who was cloned; where the existence of cloning encourages the fallacy of genetic determinism; where the cloned child is confused about his family relations; etc.) I am not comfortable with the idea of banning a procedure because of mistaken perceptions. After all, a cloning ban itself would contribute to a stigma against cloned children, and would reinforce misperceptions of cloning. In some ways, this is analogous to the question of whether parents should abort fetuses that have the "gay gene" because they don't want their kids to be discriminated against. In the case of gay kids, the answer is clearly no. Likewise, should we ban cloning because cloned kids will suffer from the false perceptions of others (or themselves)? I lean toward no; still, the analogy with gay kids is not perfect (selecting for straight children denigrates currently existing gay people while a cloning ban doesn't denigrate any currently existing people), so I am somewhat open to banning cloning on the grounds of negative perception of one sort or another.
The other major argument against cloning is the argument of design. When we have kids, we don't design them - we just leave their genes up to chance. But a cloned child would be designed by virtue of having picked a specific genome to clone. Design is not compatible with dignity: something designed has a purpose external to itself, so a cloned child would be a means, not an end in itself.
But dignity-denying design is not the same as reproductive cloning. That is, not all cloned children would be designed in this dignity-denying sense, and many non-cloned children are already being designed. On the former: reproductive cloning may not always carry the intent of design (suppose someone infertile gets cloned as a last resort for having biologically related children), and a cloned child could certainly be treated with dignity as an end in herself rather than a means if her parent so chose. On the latter: the boundary between reproductive cloning and IVF regarding "design" is so flimsy as to be nearly non-existent. After all, what is the difference between selecting a genome to clone and selecting an embryo to implant? Yet the latter is already happening. Sex selection; conceiving a child to be a tissue donor for a sibling; etc. Design even happens in non-biotechnology circumstances, like the parent who forces his child to train intensively in baseball/football/piano/etc so the parent can live out dreams of lost glory. The 'designing' of humans is a distinct issue from cloning and ought to be addressed on its own terms.
So, the argument against reproductive cloning seems to take two major forms: that cloned children would be subject to harms that are largely due to misperceptions and fallacies, and that cloning necessarily dehumanizes through design. The first form of argument is only persuasive to the extent that people cannot be re-educated; the second form is persuasive but isn't about cloning per se.
I suppose the whole argument is moot for now, as the safety concern trumps all. So I still have time to figure out what I think.
Update, 12 Jan: Welcome to all the visitors from Tangled Bank! Please check out my main blog here. To anyone else, go read the posts in the Tangled Bank carnival - there's a lot of good stuff there.