THE CLONING of human embryos by Dr. Jerry L. Hall at George Washington University Medical Center last month has set off an interesting ethical debate. Should it be done? For what purposes? With what controls? It is not surprising--though I find it appalling-that some commentators see the entire issue in terms of individual autonomy. Embryos belong to their producers, they argue, and it is not society's business to interfere with the exercise of peoples privacy (see comments in the New York Times, October 26).
Ones approach to cloning will vary according to the range of issues one wants to consider. For example, some people will focus solely on the role of cloning in aiding infertile couples-- and they will likely conclude that there is nothing wrong with it. The scarcely hidden assumption is that anything that helps overcome infertility is morally appropriate. That is, I believe, frighteningly myopic.
Human cloning is an extremely social matter, not a question of mere personal privacy. I see three dimensions to the moral question: the wholeness of life, the individuality of life, and respect for life.
Wholeness. Our society has gone a long way down the road of positive eugenics, the preferential breeding of superior genotypes. People offhandedly refer to "the right to a healthy child." Implied in such loose talk is the right to discard the imperfect. What is meant, of course, is that couples have a claim to reasonably available means to ensure that their children are born healthy. We have pre-implementation diagnosis for genetic defects. We have recently seen several cases of "wrongful life" where the child herself or himself is the plaintiff. As a member of the ethics committee of the American Fertility Society, I regularly receive brochures from sperm banks stating the donors race, education, hobbies, height, weight and eye color. We are rapidly becoming a pick-and-choose society with regard to our prospective children. More than a few couples withhold acceptance of their fetuses pending further testing. This practice of eugenics raises a host of problems: What qualities are to be maximized? What defects are intolerable? Who decides? But the critical flaw in "preferential breeding"is the perversion of our attitudes: we begin to value the person in terms of the particular trait he or she was programmed to have. In short, we reduce the whole to a part. People who do that are in a moral wilderness.
Individuality. Uniqueness and diversity (sexual, racial, ethnic, cultural) are treasured aspects of the human condition, as was sharply noted by a study group of the National Council of Churches in 1984 (Genetic Engineering: Social and Ethical Consequences). Viewed theologically, human beings, in their enchanting, irreplaceable uniqueness and with all their differences, are made in the image of God. Eugenics schemes that would bypass, downplay or flatten human diversities and uniqueness should be viewed with a beady eye. In the age of the Genome Project it is increasingly possible to collapse the human person into genetic data. …