Friday, January 11, 2008

Human cloning and human rights

It may just be one of my blind spots, but I have never understood certain objections to human cloning. I do support objections having to do with the risk of experimentation on humans due to the possibility of shortened life-spans, of increased cancer risk, and the like. But I don’t understand the worry that cloned humans would somehow be less human than other people. Why would clones be less human than people whose genesis was the result of a hot date?

There are examples to back up the idea that cloned humans would be indistinguishable from ordinary folks. So-called “identical” twins share the same DNA but no one thinks that twins are less human than singletons. A clone would be even less like its source of genetic material than twins are like each other because a clone would grow up in a different environment.

Likewise, over 100,000 children have been born in the US as the result of in vitro fertilization, so it can’t be the manipulation of eggs alone that results in the ethical objection to cloning.

And it’s not the case that a clone would not have a mother, since babies still develop in wombs and gestation still takes about 9 months.

Last November, the UN issued a report that called for a global ban on human cloning. The authors’ opposition to human cloning is that clones might be denied full human rights. Brendan Tobin, one of the authors, has said that if cloning is not banned, then
“…the world community must accept responsibility and ensure that any cloned individual receives full human rights protection.”

It seems to me that there are no relevant features of a clone that would be grounds for denying human rights! But at the same time, human rights are sometimes denied to women, to children, to widows, to members of particular race, ethnic, or caste groups, and to the disabled, without any grounds.

14 comments:

Suits said...

Good points. Also...

(1) What does it mean to be "less than" human? Suppose a clone has no ability to reproduce. Is that "less than human"? Some humans choose to make themselves into reproductively challenged organisms, but we'd be hard-pressed to call them "less than human". Suppose a clone is deaf. Or blind? Or without perfect pitch? Are those properties ways of being "less than human"?

(2) Might "less than human" sometimes mean "different"? Is it "less than human" to have a more acute sense of smell, or a retina which is sensitive much further into the infrared?

(3) Is "less than human" (or "more than human" or "different") undesirable? Or necessarily a moral issue? Just think of all the ways humans have changed themselves from their natural endowments. Perhaps it would be less than human to not invent changes to ourselves.

Evelyn Brister said...

Yes, Suits, given the variety among humans, why would the unique features of a human clone be at all relevant to human rights?

Moreover, unlike unique abilities such as infrared vision, a cloned human would be absolutely ordinary except for biological genesis and parental relationship. But are those features that are relevant to the granting of rights?

I can only think that Tobin and the UN are concerned that any new class of humans could be denied rights from the outset. But then...why not rectify the denial when (and if) it occurred rather than try to prevent research at the outset?

Khadimir said...

I am concerned about the unprecedented technological penetration into
human personality (personhood). People might become "materially
replaceable" in ways in which I foresee a devastating impact upon the
social and cultural if the practice and its ways becomes widespread.
For instance, imagine the impact upon the psyche of Jane and Brad, a
bereaved couple, who know that 5 year old Jimmy may be "brought back."
The very awareness of that real possibility poses challenges for the
care and regard for personality. (I follow Lao Tzu on this one:
knowledge births desire, which too often becomes disappointment and
unhappiness; one could also read Genesis this way.)

No, no, I am not worried about clone armies, Gattaga-scenarios, or the
like. I am concerned about what this technology could do to
individual and social consciousness if it ever becomes commonly
available. Though I do not claim parity in these examples, consider
what the nuclear destruction of Hirshima and Nagasaki did to global
consciousness. Or, perhaps, widespread availability of condoms,
vaccines, eye sight correction. We now know that radical technologies
can change us in unforeseen ways--in consciousness if not in body--and
we should consider this before embracing them.

At the very least, one should be very apprehensive about this technology.

Khadimir said...

In response to the previous comments ....

I suppose that what it means to be "less than human" is presumed to be relevant to the granting of human rights. However, explorations of the definition of humanity have little effect on the social, cultural, and political dimensions of the problem. These distinctions are de facto made in the context, and the de jure definition has little power. (See the history of human rights.) In short, the creation of a distinct group is also the condition for discrimination.

Allowing for the widespread cloning of humans creates the consciousness of a difference, and difference has a bloody history. If we can avoid this, then we should. Why pursue this technology or in this way?

(Note that I continually qualify my comments with "widespread" cloning.)

Evelyn Brister said...

Khadimir, I do appreciate the way you put the possible practice of cloning into a social context. Indeed, I think legitimate questions to consider.

But I still don't see the justification given by the UN: that clones might be denied human rights. On what grounds could even a specious justification be made?

You say that there could be some harmful cultural fall-out. Not the denial of human rights but some sort of commodification. Even though I don't see that it would be much different from other ways children are commodified, I also have a worry: that there are insurmountable experimental obstacles. Either way, these are consequentialist, not essentialist, concerns.

Khadimir said...

I see that our concerns are further removed than the miles between us. Before I comment further, I think it worth noting the obvious difference of viewpoint and the correlative not so obvious effects it has on how we conceive the issues. I see that concerns are lurking in Dr Brister's words that are not yet manifest to me.

Dr. Brister, you write "Even though I don't see that it would be much different from other ways children are commodified, I also have a worry: that there are insurmountable experimental obstacles. Either way, these are consequentialist, not essentialist, concerns."

First, the difference is that we are as yet in a position to stop this form of "commodification" before it begins. Also, note that I wrote of much more than commodification of which commodification is one of the more extreme possibilities. The change of sociocultural consciousness is what really worries me, though I am not sure that this would manifest within my lifetime.

Second, that these are "consequentialist" and not "essentialist" claims is a not a difference that makes a difference in an obvious way. Perhaps I have missed the point--what is the significance of making this distinction other than to point out that my worries are not written into the vaulted sky?

Once again, I hope for more inquiry into precisely what we are getting ourselves into before it is too late. But then ... it rarely happens that way with technology. We are a civilization that steps first and then looks into what we have stepped. This is no longer--if it ever was--an advisable posture. This concern is repeated throughout most any discussion that I have about technology, which includes our past ones on this site.

Best.

Noumena said...

Could the concern be about de facto, rather than de jure, denials of the human rights of clones? Suppose the first human clone is born in a laboratory rather than a regular hospital, and the embryologists and obstetricians are ethically monstrous enough to not file a birth certificate. They could then raise her (say) in that laboratory setting rather than with a loving foster family, deny her access to an education, etc., and no-one outside would know about these abuses.

So the scientists aren't justifying denying this cloned little girl her rights, to her or themselves or any third party. They're simply denying them.

Or if there's a `justification', it's a paper-thin gesture in the direction of `science'. Think of Tuskegee: of course there was no ethical justification for denying all these men treatment for syphilis, but it still happened. Perhaps the worry is about something similar happening to clones.

Evelyn Brister said...

Hmmmm....I don't see how the lab birth scenario gets any traction. The baby would still have a mother, one who carried the fetus for 9 or so months, then labored or had a C-section. So why wouldn't current laws apply? If the concern is about the mother being a surrogate and then no one to look after the child's well-being because the parents are not the standard ones...well at that point we're worried about surrogacy and child slavery.

I could generate an analogous case about a woman who is interested in having babies to sell them in order to pay the bills. Maybe she doesn't go outside for 5 months and buys all her groceries over the internet so that her neighbors won't know she's pregnant. Why would the genesis of the child's DNA be relevant?

I'm not even sure why you think the baby needs a foster family. Presumably the case of an implanted cloned embryo would be like any implanted embryo, and the birth mother would be the legal mother. Then the mother is the one who bears the responsibility for child enslavement.

This whole debate over the science fiction cloning scenarios reminds me very much of the 1980s debate over IVF. And look, about 1% of births in the US are the result of IVF, with no clear damage to the social fabric.

Khadimir said...

Noumena addresses the line of thought and concerns that I have (de facto concerns), though the situation is more scifi than I had in mind. In your response to this and others, Dr. Brister, you do not address the socio-cultural issues that motivate me. I note also that the article was tagged "rights," which barely registers on the radar of my consciousness as an issue. Let me give a more explicit example of my concerns. Aside, cloning and in vitro fertilization (IVF) are not on par in this regard.

Imagine, for example, a pair of identical twins. Normally one would expect that they would have a fairly regular life. The fact that they are twins is minor. (I am thinking of some twin sisters that I know.) They grow up, they live their childhood and possibly adult life together, and they undergo some hijinks about being twins.

Now, imagine that, instead of growing up together or at least living knowing that one is a twin, that one is a clone. I am a copy. A duplicate. A doppleganger. Is this my life or a borrowed life? What is it that Mommy and Daddy see in their eyes? Me? Or the Real Me? Why do people that I have never seen do double takes? Or sometimes ask which one am I? But there has always been me, right? Or ... wrong.

I have shifted into the first person to drive home the psychological-existential issues that such would bring. For real world parallels, consider adopted children that did not know that they were adopted (or maybe they did). It affects them and frequently becomes a fault line in their life. Likewise, I also added the social dimension.

Khadimir said...

Ooops.

My story-example was written from the viewpoint that the "real me," the "original copy" was dead. But it still works.

Noumena said...

Unlike khadimir, I don't consider the scenario I described very likely. I think you've hit the nail on the head with the IVF comparison, too -- the real worry isn't about the human rights of the child but, from one camp, all this mucking about with God's Plan/Nature, and from the other camp (which I believe would be yours, khadimir), that the cloned child would be perceived to not be human.

The first concern is an example of the-fallacy-that's-called-the-naturalist-fallacy-but-isn't-what-Moore-meant-by-that. The second concern is empirically undermined, I think, by IVF, foster children, adopted children, and so on.

Evelyn Brister said...

Noumena, to come back to your comment and the distinction between de facto and de jure rights denials. I think you’re right that the first is more likely to occur—because there don’t seem to be even poor grounds for the second. And it certainly is the case that groups of people are denied human rights without any legitimate grounds. For example, the movie “Water” shows the treatment of very young (as young as 6) widows in India. Although the movie has a historical setting, I‘ve read that these rights abuses still occur.

But is the proper response to the possibility of rights abuses to advocate a ban on research? Is that the only response that is open to the UN? Since human cloning, if it occurs, will likely be high-profile (the reason to do it, after all, is to get recognition and open a market), it seems highly unlikely to me that rights abuses are in the offing. My suspicion is that the proposed ban is motivated by an essentialist view of human souls and a religious opposition to reproductive technologies.

Evelyn Brister said...

It seems, Khadimir, that you and I once again have opposing viewpoints. I’ve come to expect it, and I’m glad that you read the blog anyway!

You say that I’ve neglected the social dimension. As a naturalist and a pragmatist, I would be horrified if it were true that I failed to couch my views in a social and scientific context. I don’t think I’ve neglected the social dimension; I think the two of us see the social dimension differently. And—I have to say it—I think I see it more realistically.

Let me be explicit about the relevant social and natural features that I see:

1. Scientific misconduct is rare. (I’m returning here to Noumena’s concern.) This has been documented by sociological studies and analyzed by the philosopher David Hull in his book “Science as Process” and elsewhere. Because so much attention is paid to high-profile research, there are excellent chances of catching falsified data or lapsed ethical protocols. Scientists who are guilty of misconduct lose their reputation and are locked out of future funding for their work. In the case of cloning, especially, the stakes are just too high.

2. Cloning research is expensive. The start-up for early research is still phenomenal. This is not research that can be done outside of established industry, research, and medical labs. No renegade mad scientists on dessert islands. And if cloning ever became commercially available, then (like IVF) it would be only for the privileged.

3. Children are already commodified, in multiple ways. This is regrettable, but reproductive technologies are not even a primary means, and human cloning would be just a drop in the bucket. You may be thinking, for instance, that someone would want to clone themselves out of narcissism—they would want a child to be exactly like them. But this is to give too much credit to genetic determinism. Cloning would be only a stepwise improvement over other common methods. If you want your child to think the way you do, you’d be better advised to send him to your alma mater as a legacy than to mess around with nuclear DNA.

4. Which brings me to the scientific context: There is more to development than nuclear DNA. The clone of a tabby cat can be a calico, believe it or not. Twins share mDNA, a prenatal environment, and (usually) similar childhood environments. Clones would not share these, and would be more different from each other than twins are.

5. More about twins: There are no guarantees against existential angst. Some people are twins, some people are adopted, some people are test-tube babies, and some people are orphans. Although it can be disturbing to learn that you are adopted, there is not a movement to ban the practice of adoption. Is the possibility of existential angst sufficient reason to ban cloning research?

6. Finally, there are ethical limitations on human experimentation and medical research. Noumena raises the Tuskegee trial, and that, I think, is the best reason to be wary of human cloning. There is now strict oversight on medical research protocols. For instance, it would be very enlightening to have a controlled study comparing maternal outcomes of planned C-section with vaginal delivery for low-risk births. But there has not and probably will not be one because it would be unethical to randomly assign pregnant women to undergo surgery. Likewise, as long as cancer and shortened life-spans are concerns, humans won’t be cloned.

Khadimir said...

Ah, our differences come to the forefront in a splendid and revealing way. Of your 6 points, only 3 and 5 touch on issues that I have brought into focus. I am unconcerned for the rest for reasons that you already mention. Before I comment further, let me be more precise on exactly what I am asserting about a "cloning ban," for some presumptions about my position need to be cleared.

I hope merely to buy some time before human cloning procedures are made widely available to the public. I think that the arrival of these procedures to the general public is inevitable, and I hope to merely usher them to the world in a more careful manner. (I think the same of GM foods btw.) Thus, most of your claims about scientific practice are well taken by me but largely irrelevant to my concerns. I am not worried about those practices. At all. I am worried about the impact outside of the lab in decades hence. I speak to the long view, which for me includes hesitance. Let us go forward with human cloning research but keep an eye on it. The minute that this becomes an "outpatient" procedure--some years hence--then we arrive at my foreseen worries.

I think that this addresses most of the issues to which I wish to speak. As for the "existential angst," let me quote you, Dr. Brister, and respond. You write "Is the possibility of existential angst sufficient reason to ban cloning research?" No. I didn't think that for a moment. To target your question to my concerns more precisely, it should read "What restrictions should there be on the availability of human cloning to the general public for reasons other than science?" The other issue of medical/scientific ethics will be well enough handled if we ask these kinds of questions.

I suspect that our previous discussions about Heidegger have instilled some inaccurate presumptions about my point of view, Dr. Brister. I'm not anti-science. I'm pro "hey let's think about what the consequences of this technology are outside the lab." I do not think that scientists do the latter well at all.