Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President's Council on Bioethics. (Essay)

By Childress, James F. | The Hastings Center Report, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President's Council on Bioethics. (Essay)


Childress, James F., The Hastings Center Report


In July 2002, the President's Council on Bioethics (PCB) issued its first report, Human Cloning and Human Dignity. The PCB's selection of this first topic was not surprising, in view of the lack of a federal ban on reproductive cloning (what the PCB calls "cloning-to-produce-children") and the vigorous, often rancorous debate about research cloning (what the PCB calls "cloning-for, biomedical research"). Indeed, it would have been surprising for the PCB to start with some other topic. After all, when President Bush met with the PCB during its first meeting, he said: "Let me say two other things and then I will listen. One, you need to monitor the stem cell issue .... And the other thing is that I have spoken clearly on cloning. I just don't think it's right. On the other hand, there is going to be a lot of nuance and subtlety to the issue, I presume. And I think this is very important for you all to help the nation understand what this means."

My comments will focus on the report's assessment of ethical arguments for and against cloning-to-produce-children and cloning-for-biomedical research, its divided policy recommendations, and some of the responses it has evoked. Anyone interested in the PCB--or in bioethics--should consult its splendid website (http://www.bioethics.gov), an excellent resource from the very beginning and now even better. The website provides selected readings, staff background papers and working papers, and superb transcripts of the PCB's meetings.

The main text of Human Cloning and Human Dignity starts with four relatively brief chapters devoted respectively to "The Meaning of Human Cloning: An Overview," "Historical Aspects of Cloning," "On Terminology," and "Scientific Background." They provide an indispensable background for the longer, central chapters--"The Ethics of Cloning-to-Produce Children" and "The Ethics of Cloning-for-Biomedical-Research." The final two chapters are "Public Policy Options" and "Policy Recommendations." An appendix includes personal statements, some extensive, by fourteen commissioners (two of whom joined on one statement).

The Ethics of Human Cloning

In many respects, in preparing this report, PCB chair Leon Kass conducted an academic seminar, creating the conditions for a careful and thoughtful analysis of the ethical arguments for and against human cloning. This possibility grew out of the executive order creating PCB. The council "shall be guided by the need to articulate fully the complex and often competing moral positions on any given issue, rather than by an overriding concern to find consensus. The Council may therefore choose to proceed by offering a variety of views on a particular issue, rather than attempt to reach a single consensus position."

Instead of "experts" in bioethics, Kass wanted on the PCB "thoughtful" participants from various disciplinary and professional backgrounds. He wanted a "Council on Bioethics, not a council of bioethicists," in part because bioethicists do not address the fundamental questions about scientific and technological developments (Foreward, xvii). (1) The report uses such metaphors as depth, breadth, and richness to characterize what is distinctive about its own methodological commitments. It locates human cloning "within its larger human and technological context," rather than viewing it as an isolated technique (p. 3). The report seeks a "richer and deeper understanding of what human cloning entails, how we should think about it, and what we should do about it" (p. 3). And it does so by considering "broad human goods" that cloning may serve or threaten. This teleological approach examines the "meaning" of human cloning to produce children and for biomedical research in reference to such "broad human goods" as procreation and relief of suffering. Because space does not permit a full analysis of the moral arguments, I will concentrate on a few points.

The report's title suggests that human cloning will be evaluated in light of a conception, or different conceptions, of 'human dignity'. …

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