ATTACK OF THE CLONES: The Ethics of Human Cloning

Friday, October 25, 2002

Cloning—using biotechnology to create embryos with specific genetic information, identical to other embryos or even human adults—used to sound like science fiction. Today, however, the ability to successfully clone human embryos is a matter of when, not if. But should human cloning be allowed to go forward? Is cloning morally wrong, in and of itself? Should we make a distinction between cloning for medical research and cloning for procreation? If cloning is morally wrong, could we stop it even if we wanted to? And if cloning isn't or can't be banned, how should it be regulated?

Recorded on Friday, October 25, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, Attack of the Clones, and not in a galaxy far, far away, but right here.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the ethics of human cloning. Cloning--using biotechnology to create embryos with specific, genetic information, identical to other embryos or even to adult humans. It used to sound like science fiction. Today, it's not a matter of if, but of when. Yet should human cloning be permitted? Should we draw a distinction between cloning for reproductive purposes, to make babies, and cloning for medical or therapeutic purposes, to fight diseases? Or is cloning wrong in and of itself?

Joining us, two guests--Dr. Gregory Stock of the UCLA School of Medicine is the author of Redesigning Humans, Our Inevitable Genetic Future. Dr. Leon Kass is chairman of President's Bush's Council on Bioethics. He's the author of Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity--The Challenge for Bioethics.

Title: The Clone Wars

Peter Robinson: From Redesigning Humans, Our Inevitable Genetic Future by Dr. Gregory Stock--you are listening to this: "The question is no longer whether we will manipulate embryos, but when, where, and how."

Leon Kass: I think he's right.

Peter Robinson: From Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity by Dr. Leon Kass--"Cloning turns procreation into manufacture." Gregory?

Gregory Stock: I strongly disagree with that. I think that that is a rather narrow view of the whole reproductive process. When you think of nine months of pregnancy, of the whole--of the complications that are involved in conceiving a child and giving birth, I think that to look at that moment of conception and say that the creation of a genetically identical offspring--a delayed twin essentially--identical twin, is transforming reproduction into a manufacture of some sort, is too narrow a view. It's a distortion of what the reality is of the process.

Peter Robinson: The two of you--actually, let's begin with you. Tell me briefly what's involved in human cloning, and in particular, the difference between what you call cloning to produce children and cloning for biomedical research.

Leon Kass: In cloning, one produces a new organism that at all stages of development is genetically identical to an already existing organism. How's it done? You start with an unfertilized egg donated by a woman, you take out that egg's nucleus or DNA, you insert into that egg the nucleus taken from a cell from you or from Greg or from me. That egg now contains--is now genetically virtually identical to the source of the donor nucleus. You zap it with electricity, it starts to divide--one cell becomes two, two become four, four become eight. At about five or six days, it reaches what is called the blastocyst stage of development, a spherical ball of cells about a hundred to two hundred cells. At that point, that embryo has two possible fates--it could be implanted into a woman in an attempt to produce a pregnancy, and if that happens and if it were successful, it hasn't yet been tried, it hasn't yet succeeded in a human as far as we know. It would produce a child that would be virtually genetically identical to the source of the original donor nucleus--a clone, a delayed genetic twin of the source of the donor nucleus. Or, at that same stage, that cloned embryo, five to six days old, could be dismembered for its stem cells, these primordial cells which will in subsequent development become all the different differentiated or specialized tissue of the body.

Peter Robinson: The significance of stem cells is that they can go on to become virtually any kind of cell.

Leon Kass: Exactly. The former activity we call cloning to produce children, the second activity is cloning used for biomedical research, and in this case for the biomedical research on the stem cells, though there are other things you could do with those embryos.

Peter Robinson: Now that we've gotten some of the cloning terminology out of the way, let's ask Gregory Stock what is at stake.

Title: Papa Was a Rolling Clone

Peter Robinson: I quote you to yourself: "If biological manipulation is indeed a slippery slope, then we may as well enjoy the ride." Why should an ordinary American be happy to hear that the process Dr. Kass has just described can indeed be put into effect?

Gregory Stock: Well, if it's put into effect, they should be happy to hear that because this is a way of creating tissue that is essentially your own tissue and that therefore will not be rejected. It's a way of developing treatments for Alzheimer, for Parkinsons, for diabetes, for spinal cord injuries. So…

Peter Robinson: Can I just ask what degree of certainty do we have that human cloning would indeed lead to cures?

Gregory Stock: We have no certainty.

Peter Robinson: It's an avenue of research.

Gregory Stock: Yes, and that's the way basic research is--that you try things that you think are likely to be fruitful, that are likely to lead to cures and to advances in treatment. And so, from my point of view, if this is successful, then it is a very exciting development. If it's not successful, then it's going to fade away; it's going to be a footnote. And as far as actual reproductive cloning, a creation of offspring then, or delayed identical twins, I see that as something that is--when it does occur, and it almost certainly will occur--that it's something that will be a niche technology, that will appeal to very few people and it's certainly not going to bring down western civilization.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so on reproductive cloning, you're not worried and on the therapeutic or cloning for research, that holds great promise.

Gregory Stock: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right, now, why should we be wary of the ride that Gregory is suggesting ought to be enjoyable?

Leon Kass: On the easier point, on cloning to produce children, even if it were a minority practice in the society, I think one shouldn't be so casual about its arrival because cloning would represent--I mean, to say that it's a delayed identical twin is to try to make this out to be something genial and quite ordinary--but the truth of the matter is, that cloning would represent the first time that parents could choose not only whether to have a child, but also exactly what kind of a child genetically speaking this is supposed to be. And it doesn't matter whether or not the child eventually turns out to be the replica, environment will play a large role. But the motive to clone, the reason to do it, is because the parents now see this child not as a gift to be treasured, but as a product on who they should work their will. And even if there's a normal pregnancy for nine months, the original act of selecting a genotype and saying my child really should be the genetic replica of my wife, or of Michael Jordan, or of somebody else, is a transformation of the relations between parents and their offspring and there are other technologies coming along down the road which will only exacerbate this temptation.

Peter Robinson: But isn't there a moral problem raised by manipulating human embryos no matter what the purpose?

Title: Life Lines

Peter Robinson: On the one hand you have the great religions that tell us that human life is sacred. You have philosophical traditions including that of Immanuel Kant. Kant talked about the Categorical Imperative, which comes down to: you are allowed to view human beings only as ends in themselves, not as means to an end. You have the liberal journalist--present day journalist--Nat Hentoff whose rule is quite simple, if it's human and it's alive, you're not allowed to touch it. So you've got quite a spectrum from the Pope to Immanuel Kant to Nat Hentoff all saying, in some sense it's quite simple, if it's human and it's alive, hands off. So why are they wrong?

Gregory Stock: If you want to accept that, and there are many people that say if it is alive and if it is human, if it's an embryo, then it would be tantamount to murder to kill that embryo. If that's true, then we should be prosecuting all sorts of women who are having abortions, we should be prosecuting people who are doing in vitro fertilization because that leads to the death of many embryos. We should be…

Peter Robinson: Can you distinguish the cloning debate from the abortion debate without surrendering a large territory of argument?

Leon Kass: First of all, the abortion debate pits the good of the nascent life against the interests and well being of the woman, and our society has decided which takes priority as a matter of law. Though I think many people who favor legalization of abortion regard abortion even in those cases, as a sad necessity and would recognize that some kind of violence is being done to nascent life. But that's off the table. What we're talking about here is not something where the life of an embryo is intentioned with the well being or interests of a woman, what we're talking about here is creating and using nascent human life as a natural resource for our own benefit.

Gregory Stock: But Leon, this same argument we could make about in vitro fertilization, let's not project into the future, let's look at the past. Let me pose it to you--you know that during in vitro fertilization, which I believe you originally opposed and now don't oppose…

Peter Robinson: In vitro fertilization is the egg is fertilized outside the…

Gregory Stock: In the laboratory.

Peter Robinson: In the laboratory and then implanted and carried to--from the moment of implantation carried to term in the usual way. Is that right?

Gregory Stock: But a number of embryos are created and embryos are lost in that process.

Leon Kass: Look here's an important distinction: In the case of in vitro fertilization to treat infertility, every single one of those embryos is being fertilized in the hope that this one, or maybe it will be that one, will be the one that will become a child. Every single one is created with the intention of giving birth to a life, but none of those embryos are being treated as a means merely. Each…

Gregory Stock: Not as individually, but if you make twelve embryos and you know you're going to implant one, then you're saying that eleven will be discarded.

Leon Kass: But that's not terribly much worse than the odds of normal sexual intercourse where there's a great deal of embryonic waste that even before there's a diagnosis of pregnancy. What you're talking about here is you're taking embryos that have been created with the intention that they just might be the child we want and now saying, oh yes, by the way we've got them, we've got these other uses for them. And that's a different matter. The issue is not is an embryo going to die. The issue is, in addition to that, how do we come to regard nascent life, and it makes all the difference in the world if you think that the embryos are just tissue for our benefit, and if you think that the embryos are potential life that could grow up and become our children.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, what will human cloning for procreation do to our society?

Title: Designing Women (and Men)

Peter Robinson: I'm quoting you, Gregory--"It's not going to be too dangerous within I'd say five to ten years"--that is although reproductive cloning hasn't worked yet, it'll work soon--"and when it happens it's not going to shake the foundations of our society." You've got Thomas Jefferson talking about all men being created equal; you've got Abraham Lincoln talking about government of, by, and for the people. It would strike me as at least plausible that the foundations of the society are indeed directly related to our conception of what is a human. So it does shake the foundations of our society. It's an entirely new way of looking at what human beings may do to each other. Come back at me on that one.

Gregory Stock: If you would look at a child who is created by that process…

Peter Robinson: By the process of reproducing…

Gregory Stock: By the process of transferring a nucleus so it is a genetically equivalent to some existing human being or some other individual who has existed, or whatever, that this is going to be just a child like any other child. I think that will be very obvious and we'll see that rather quickly when this occurs. You know there were extraordinary statements made against in vitro fertilization, that these are test tube babies, that these are not real children. Jeremy Rifkin said that there would be psychological monstrosities. And yet in hindsight when we look back at that moment, we see, well this really wasn't that big a thing. And I suspect that the same will occur about cloning, although I suspect that cloning will never be as popular a development and never as utilized…

Peter Robinson: As in vitro already is?

Gregory Stock: ...a development as in vitro. And if I were afraid of the future of all of these technologies because I think cloning is sort of a side show and is not very important personally…

Peter Robinson: Reproductive cloning?

Gregory Stock: Reproductive cloning, yes. I would be concerned about in vitro fertilization because it is the foundation of all of these advance technologies.

Peter Robinson: Leon can I--so if you say I'm not going to object to cloning on the strict grounds of what happens to the embryo because--reproductive cloning--because allowing in vitro--you're trying to draw distinctions between in vitro and reproductive cloning, but instead the locus of your argument shifts to the intent of the parents.

Leon Kass: Now be careful. We've got a couple of things--there's confusion here. The arguments about reproductive cloning have nothing to do with the embryo. The arguments about reproductive cloning have to do with whether or not it is--whether it's proper for us to create children with an identity that is already lived--whether it's proper for us to determine in advance the genetic makeup of our children and whether this is or is not just a new wrinkle on procreation or whether this is a giant step toward manufacturing children…

Peter Robinson: Okay, what I'm trying to get…

Leon Kass: That's not to do with the fate of the embryo.

Peter Robinson: In and of itself you object to that, or do you object to it on the grounds of second order effects in society?

Leon Kass: No, no, no, on the cloning to produce children I object to it in and of itself.

Gregory Stock: Since the idea there for you seems to be the idea of knowing the genetics of that child in advance of that embryo.

Leon Kass: Not knowing it, determining it.

Gregory Stock: Well, determining it. What if we have several embryos, which we've already discussed in in vitro fertilization and we know that a choice is made and it's possible to do a genetic test on each of those embryos--they're existing embryos--and make a choice based on that genetic test. There's nothing dangerous there and yet it is the same exertion and perhaps a much more powerful exertion of parental will into the next generation.

Leon Kass: While we've come to accept in vitro fertilization, some of the things that some of us worried about at the beginning turned out to be quite proper worries, because we said look, you start with in vitro fertilization soon you're going to have cloning. You start with in vitro fertilization; soon you're going to have genetic screening and modification of embryos. You're going to wind up with drawers and freezers full of embryos and you're going to wind up instrumentalizing nascent human life. We were not wrong about that even if in vitro fertilization in its intra-marital use is innocent.

Peter Robinson: The President's Council on Bioethics has recommended a four-year moratorium on all human cloning. A moratorium, why not an outright ban?

Title: Four More Years

Peter Robinson: Quoting Dr. Kass once again: "Regarding cloning for biomedical research, the council, like the nation, is divided. A minority recommends that we proceed now with such potentially crucial research, but only with significant regulations in place. A majority of the council, myself included, himself included, recommends that no human cloning of any kind be permitted at this time, we propose a four-year federal moratorium on all human cloning." Now, don't your arguments in fact tend toward a permanent ban? What would a four-year moratorium accomplish?

Leon Kass: Well, a four-year moratorium would give us an opportunity to continue first of all to have this argument that we are having here. Second, it would give the scientists the opportunity to demonstrate what I don't think they're going to be able to demonstrate, namely that the only way to solve the transplant rejection problem is to use cloned embryos. We don't yet have any stem cell research from embryos that has been demonstrated to actually have this therapeutic benefit.

Peter Robinson: So now Gregory, Leon's proposal sounds modest and reasonable. There are grave moral concerns, the nation is divided, call a halt for four years. Let science show us that it really needs this particular kind of research, let the nation debate the moral and ethical implications, what's wrong with that?

Gregory Stock: Well first of all, I think that the fundamental--that there was never going to be a consensus about this. It touches our philosophies, our religious beliefs, our values too deeply, so we will go on and four years from now, the debate will have changed very little I suspect. Secondly, I think that this research is proceeding full speed ahead in other regions of the world. In Britain, it's proceeding in…

Peter Robinson: Do the British have any kind of moral debate over it, I don't recall?

Leon Kass: They're still in the middle of it actually, on the cloning part.

Peter Robinson: But their judgment was to let the research go ahead while they debated it?

Gregory Stock: As long as an embryo is less than two weeks, then it's possible to continue to do research on it.

Peter Robinson: That's a parenthetical point, sorry. Go ahead.

Gregory Stock: And the people who say well four years is a long time, these are the very people that Leon was concerned about--these are people who have diseases who say four years is important to me. I have cystic fibrosis, I have diabetes, why should we stop this kind of research, because personally if this research does not pan out, and there has been a certain amount of hype associated with it, the whole debate is going to go away, it'll be solved very nicely because nobody is interested in failed possibilities. They're only interested in the possibilities of success.

Peter Robinson: So your view is if it's a dead alley, let's find out now. And if it's promising, let's find that out now and get the therapeutic benefits on to people who need it as quickly as possible?

Gregory Stock: Exactly.

Leon Kass: Other nations by the way, are very divided on this. Germany is, in terms of biotech, the most rapidly growing nation in Europe and they have a complete ban on all embryo research.

Peter Robinson: In the German debates on this matter, is the experience of the Second World War and Nazi medical research, was that brought to bear? Is that in the back of the German mind, or is that just completely irrelevant?

Gregory Stock: I speak in Germany all the time, and that is very central to their thinking about this.

Peter Robinson: It is?

Gregory Stock: The idea of the Nazi abuses of the past make them particularly sensitive to these sorts of issues and in fact they don't like--they don't allow genetic screening, they don't allow any sorts of manipulations of embryos. They are probably the most conservative in the world.

Peter Robinson: Does it not follow from that, isn't it simple prudence on the part of this country, to be wary, if that is what the Germans having gone through what they went through, now conclude from their own experience, ought we not to learn from their experience as well?

Gregory Stock: The Germans in fact are very uncertain of their own abilities to sort of regulate in this environment. And that's…

Peter Robinson: The Germans are somewhat frightened of themselves?

Gregory Stock: Yeah, there is a certain sense of that and the second thing is that in the United States, we would be making a very big step. It's not just the decision to allow research on embryos; we are trying to criminalize the very basic biomedical research that is directed towards the finding of cures for various diseases. And to me, this is a huge step that I think would be a very disastrous precedent to create in this country--to possibly put in prison basic biomedical researchers who are trying to find cures for disease, for ten years.

Peter Robinson: Leon?

Leon Kass: But it's just not true that basic research cannot take guidance and cannot live within boundaries. It's not true. We don't allow in this country all kinds of things that might cure diseases because they involve unethical experimentation on existing human beings. We have strict rules manifested in the requirement of informed consent, but going beyond that. We protect the vulnerable amongst us. Right?

Peter Robinson: Last topic, in a democracy, how do we decide such a controversial question?

Title: Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Peter Robinson: You can easily talk about and imagine and say that science is moving in the direction of creating human beings for the express purpose of subjecting them to medical research or harvesting limbs or organs from them, and so forth, and it seems to me that in your argument, you're not offering a way of reassuring the American people that you and other scientists pursuing this research and the entire medical industrial complex that will grow up with it can draw the necessary distinctions and prevent it from being used to create monstrous ends. So how do you draw those lines?

Gregory Stock: I think we're very good at drawing those lines. We have hundreds of laws in place to prevent the abusive experimentation upon individuals, to protect individuals. And we need to enforce those and enforce them very strongly. You talk about harvesting limbs and harvesting organs and these sorts of things, this is illegal, you can't do that in this country. The line in terms of where you draw those lines is something that we have been grappling with for decades and that we will continue to do and will continue to grapple with.

Peter Robinson: You find the decades of grappling encouraging rather than discouraging?

Gregory Stock: Yes. I think there's no chance that we're going to go into some sort of--to evoke the specters of Nazi Germany I think is very sort of an extreme card to play and what we're talking about is this realm of what I see as biomedical research…

Leon Kass: I half think he's right. I think the real dangers here are less the coercive use of the state, although the respect for nascent life is a place that we should be much more careful than we now are. But I really think the other danger, namely of the use of freedom to--in ways that would voluntarily degrade ourselves, the brave new world rather than Nazi Germany seems to be much more the mirror in which we're going to see ourselves.

Peter Robinson: Your question, Leon, runs as follows. You are arguing in favor of a diffuse general good, human dignity, and you come testify before the congressional committee and say these things that are noble and good and true. And then the camera shifts to a woman who says my husband has Parkinsons and it shifts to a mother who says my child has sickle cell anemia. And there you have it, the emotion, the well-organized special interest will trump you every time. How can you possibly hope to draw the line that you would like to see drawn?

Leon Kass: The debate that took place in the House of Representatives in July, the summer, culminating in the vote in July of 2001…

Peter Robinson: The vote in July was to ban all cloning.

Leon Kass: Was all cloning, including cloning for biomedical research…

Peter Robinson: Which went nowhere in the Senate.

Leon Kass: It went nowhere in the Senate and we will see it again, we will see what happens. But what was very instructive, it was the first time in at least my memory that people got up in the floor of the House and said, this will save lives and it wasn't the trumping argument. Because people somehow understand that yes, it's important to save lives and the special interests can mobilize the support the way they couldn't fifteen, twenty years ago. But I think there are enough people who sense that there are other values here that are at stake. And for me the important issue about a ban on cloning is--in a way I agree with him, I don't think Western civilization's going to come to an end if we clone a few children, but I think symbolically it's very, very important to enact this ban because it shifts the burden of proof to those who say we want to transform how human reproduction takes place in the world. You now have to show us why it's necessary to have it. And I think it's important.

Peter Robinson: Quick prediction from each of you, I ask you to separate what you would like to see happen from what you think will happen. A decade from now, will human cloning, a decade, human cloning in the United States be commonplace, rare, or non-existent? Gregory?

Gregory Stock: Either very rare or non-existent, but cloning will have occurred somewhere in the world and we will probably be a little bit more--a little bit less worried or horrified by the prospect of a clone.

Peter Robinson: Leon?

Leon Kass: I think it will be uncommon because it might turn out to be harder to do than some people think.

Peter Robinson: But not non-existent? The ban won't work.

Leon Kass: No. In the United States?

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Leon Kass: I don't care if there is an exception, I wouldn't rescind the law against incest just because it happens once in awhile. I think it's important that we have a marker down there. It might happen here or there.

Peter Robinson: Dr. Leon Kass, Dr. Gregory Stock, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.