An Exchange on Cloning

[For the uninitiated: Theomorph is an atheist lexivore and Jerry Nora is a Catholic MD/PhD student with penchant for bioethics. – Funky]

A week ago, Theomorph posted some thoughts about cloning on his blog. Below I have the questions that he poses in bold and his own answers in italic, and my own counterpoints are in plain text.

Tuck in, and happy debating!

Do clones have souls?

No. Souls don’t exist. Have you seen one? Neither have I.

I can’t say that I’ve seen a gravitational or magnetic field either, but I believe in them, too. Thanks to Descartes, modern man by default imagines that the soul is this ghost in the machine – Casper climbs into a lifeless body, and suddenly it jerks into life like it was a Robotech machine. I don’t believe in that, and the Catholic Church outright condemns such hard dualism, but we can talk about the interesting question of souls and personal identity later. It’s a red herring right now, especially since it doesn’t touch on the stuff below.

I’ve written bioethics papers on this topic, so I’d happy to bore you with it later on. But moving right along…

Should clones be used for scientific experiments?

No. Should your twin brother or sister be used for scientific experiments?

Okay, we do agree on this point!

Isn’t cloning “playing God”?

No. Cloning is just a different method of reproducing. Is it “playing God” knock up your girlfriend on prom night and bring a child into the world who lacks responsible parents? (Hint: No, it’s just stupid.)

Really? I’m similar to my father–many people remark on it–but they do not think I’m identical to him. So cloning doesn’t strike me as very typical in that sense, since we get an offspring that is more-or-less identical. Identical twins may be genetically identical to each other (even with regard to mitochondrial DNA, which is not the case with a “clone” made from somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is the basic process for all the successful mammalian cloning experiments to date, as I understand), but they were begotten the “old fashioned way”.

To my eyes, the issue at hand is control: a child is conceived through the natural way, we won’t guarantee whether he’ll have his dad’s eyes or tendency to really pack on the pounds in the thirties…this is the case even with identical twins and the like, the only difference is that with twins, you have twice the uncertainty! But cloning will let us (theoretically) know these things.

But for what purpose? Oddly enough, “reproductive” cloning–or cloning with the intent of taking the cloned person and letting him grow up–is almost universally decried. “Therapeutic” cloning, however, has garnered much support. This type of cloning is not technically any different from reproductive cloning. It’s all the intent. In therapeutic cloning, the clone is destroyed at some desired developmental stage for stem cells or organs. It’s quite therapeutic, all right, for anyone but the clone himself!

Natural reproduction can be a tricky thing, but Theo says, it is not “playing God” (which I take to mean “being unreasonably and illegitimately manipulative of one’s circumstances and powers”), since natural reproduction can happen even when we don’t intend to reproduce (i.e., Theo’s example with regard to an amorous prom night).

Cloning, however, requires clear intent and premeditation, and implicitly sets one class of humans above another. This would be a case of ‘playing God’, where the power assumed seems to me to be inherently corrupting.

Do you want a cure to a disease? There are plenty of technologies already out there: regenerative medicine has made great strides without controversial technologies like this. (Including restoring eyesight to a woman whose eyes were ruined by acid that got sprayed on her face. Not bad, eh?)

Do you want a child? Adopt, don’t clone. There are already plenty of people who need parents.

What if we made clones without brains to harvest their organs? Wouldn’t that be wrong?

No. How would a body without a brain know or care that its organs were being harvested? How would a body without a brain suffer? No brain equals no knowledge, no caring, no suffering, and no ethical dilemma.

So if I rip people off without their knowledge, it’s okay? Those Enron execs did just fine until someone looked just a little harder at their books? What if we performed scientific experiments on a brainless clone–would the objection to scientific experiments on one’s twin given above still hold? Could we likewise apply this to brain-dead patients in a hospital–they won’t know, so let’s enroll them in a study or two?

More fundamentally, this argument goes wrong right when we introduce the idea of a conveniently brainless clone.

What needs to do be done to make a brainless clone? I can suggest a couple methods off the top of my head:

1.Disruption of the developmental process – use a tailored piece of siRNA, for instance, to disrupt a key gene. This could be tricky since you’d have to avoid knocking any other cellular process out of commission, but it’s at least (technically) plausible.

2. Using a laser to destroy the brain early in development… Such lasers are already in use for plenty of non-controversial research in cellular biology and biophysics, so I think they’d be a possible resource for such work in the future, should it happen.

Well, in Case 2, what you’re doing amounts to aggravated battery against an embryo. Clearly, if one is pro-choice, this is no big deal per se. If you can kill ’em, I’m not sure if there is any hard-and-fast way of declaring such a procedure bad. We are brought right back to the abortion issue. Funny how that keeps happening

Now in case one, perhaps a cloning advocate could be sneakier. After all, if the brain never developed, that’s quite different than in Case 2, where it does require an anatomically recognizable brain in order for the technician to destroy it accurately.

As you may guess, though, I still don’t buy it. 🙂 If you withhold something from a human necessary for the human’s thriving, that’s morally culpable. A mother who has the money and means of giving her child a proper diet, but who does not, and causes medical/developmental problems for that child, can face legal charges. I’d submit that Case 1 is even more blatantly wrong than a mere withholding of a particular substance, since in this case, we’d be adding an agent to disrupt an ongoing natural process that would have permitted normal development in the embryo. It’s active interference.

Would you want to be cloned?

Only if I was going to have no contact with him; I wouldn’t want to influence the poor bastard. Let him make his own mistakes.

Nope. One of me is quite sufficient and confusing enough.

Isn’t cloning absolutely terrifying?

Only if you’re a Christian, apparently.

I’m not scared, I just think it’s wrong. Why bring emotions into this?

Thanks for asking, though. 🙂