The return of the clones?

Many of the bioethics journal articles and books written after Dolly’s birth have a precautionary stance similar to this one: “It is important to debate about the morality of human reproductive cloning before someone actually tries to do it.”

The general idea behind such a stance was not that human cloning is bad per se, but that an open and philosophically instructed debate regarding human reproductive cloning would tell us if it is moral or immoral. It was also thought that the results of such debate would be central to policymaking.

Of these two expected results the latter proved not to be the case. The debate regarding human reproductive cloning was at that time a lively one, and many books and papers were published as a result. On the one hand of the debate there were some very influential conservative intellectuals, like George Annas, Francis Fukuyama and Leon R. Kass , who claimed that cloning was immoral and should be banned; on the other hand some liberal philosophers, like John Harris and Nicholas Agar, concluded that although the technology was not quite ready, human reproductive cloning was not immoral and should not be banned when the technology is safe enough. Apart from making their own case the liberals also showed that the arguments advanced by the conservative side were flawed, mainly by showing that the conservatives were recurring to rhetorical claims instead of arguments, and by showing that the conservatives’ empirical claims were actually false.

Contrary to what was expected, the laws that were enacted had little or nothing to do with the best arguments. What in fact happened was that, while the liberal side was actually able to prove that the arguments against human reproductive cloning were flawed and there were moral reasons not to ban it, the conservative side had more international and local political leverage.

After some years, the lively debate started to slow down. I think there were three key factors that caused it: (1) nobody had been able to clone a human being; (2) while the liberal side replied to each argument advanced by those against human reproductive cloning, the conservative side did not reply back; and (3) (this point is much more speculative) the fact that human reproductive cloning was banned in many countries caused the conservative intellectuals to think they did not need to reply to their liberal counterparts.

An example of the slowdown of the debate is that none of the main bioethics journals (The American Journal of Bioethics, The Journal of Medical Ethics, The Hastings Center Report, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, and Bioethics) published an article regarding human reproductive cloning in 2012.

Academics were not the only ones to lose interest in human cloning. For example, a quick search into Google Trends of the term “Human cloning” will show that from 2004 onwards there is a steady downward trend of its search. Human reproductive cloning ceased to be a hot topic. The same can be said of any of the following terms: ethics of human cloning, human cloning ethics, human cloning pros, human cloning cons and human cloning pros and cons.

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Although the debate has been very quiet for some years, this may change in the near future. Last May a group of researchers led by Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov succeeded in deriving human embryonic stem cells from human clones. The fact that they were able to produce human clones will probably reignite the human reproductive cloning debate, mainly because the clones that were used to derive stem cells could have been used for reproductive purposes. I presume this will reignite the debate and that we will see, once again, liberals and conservatives arguing about human reproductive cloning. The difference is this time there is a real prospect of human reproductive cloning becoming safe enough to be tried in the near future.

By César Palacios

@CPalaciosG

June 4, 2013

 

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