Response to prof. Robertson
School of Advanced International Studies
Prof. Robertson argues against the need for legislation to ban reproductive cloning, as well as the other prohibitions contained in the President's Council on Bioethics' pending report Reproduction and Responsibility, on two grounds. The first is that the new reproductive possibilities are highly speculative and not likely to ever emerge. He argues that other procedures mentioned in the Council's report, like cloning to produce organs and tissues, will never happen. The second objection applies specifically to reproductive cloning: if it could be done safely and effectively, it would benefit some individuals, and therefore should not be banned.
Let me begin with the second argument, since if in fact reproductive cloning was something desirable, it would obviously make no sense to ban it. Prof. Robertson argues that because it is possible to conceive of a situation in which someone could produce a genetic offspring in no other way than through cloning, the procedure should not be prohibited.
The primary harms that I envision resulting from reproductive cloning are psychological ones to the cloned child. Such a child would be the identical twin of one parent, and bear no relationship whatsoever to the other parent. This unbalanced relationship does not occur in either natural reproduction or in adoption. Unlike the case of identical twins born at the same time, the parent's genotype will have been experienced already; while the individuals will obviously be different, they will also be similar in ways that will put the child in a complex psychological relationship with someone who is not an equal but an authority figure.
One might argue that these harms are speculative, but they are no less so than Prof. Robertson's imagining of a situation of a parent wanting to clone him or herself. The fact that one can find a single, somewhat eccentric case where this type of reproduction is desirable is not a reason for permitting a practice that can be expected to hurt the well-being of the child, and privileges having a genetic offspring over other kinds of social goods.
An analogy would be incest: it is perfectly possible to imagine a brother-sister or father-daughter pair who would benefit from being allowed to marry one another and have children (for example, if they were separated at birth, fell in passionately love with one another, and could be tested for recessive disorders). This theoretical possibility would not, however, be a reason for legalizing the activity as a whole.
If we assume that reproductive cloning should not ever be legalized, we can turn to the question of whether a ban now is premature. Prof. Robertson argues that the day when reproductive cloning will be possible is far off, because it will be a long time before it is proved that it can be done safely. But how are we ever going to know that it is safe unless someone actually tries to do it? Experiments with animals will never be an adequate substitute. One of the reasons for a ban now is that any form of experimentation in this area is unethical since the result of the experimentation is a child. One might justify such experimentation if there were an overwhelming social good to be achieved by doing it, but the potential good posited by Prof. Robertson is marginal at best. Any number of other countries have thus concluded that a ban now is appropriate because there are indeed people considering such experimentation.
On the question of the time frame in which other possibilities like embryo fusion or use of non-human oocytes will emerge as real possibilities, I donÕt think that either Prof. Robertson or I are in a position to predict. Certainly all of these have been talked about actively within the ART and developmental biology communities recently. Replacement organs and tissues have been touted as one of the great benefits of so-called ÒtherapeuticÓ cloning, but no one has explained how such replacement parts are going to be grown without taking them either from an existing human being or from some kind of human-animal hybrid. My sense is that stem cell research in the past year or two has shown that there is a great deal more plasticity in the whole embryonic development process than previously thought, which means that many new procedures will become possible sooner rather than later. If we have good reason for finding these possibilities repugnant now, I donÕt see why we have to wait until they become realities to act on them legislatively.