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The President's Council Weighs In On Banning Versus Allowing It


Thursday, Jul. 25, 2002

Everyone on the Council agreed CPC should be banned. But the Council was divided on CRT. Ten members favored imposing a four-year moratorium on CRT. Seven of the ten believed CRT ultimately should be banned, but they agreed with the other three that a moratorium would provide more time for democratic deliberation and more time to gather scientific evidence on the value of CRT and alternative technologies. Also, if CRT is ever deemed permissible, it would provide time to develop effective regulations.

Meanwhile, seven members favored allowing CRT to proceed while regulations to prevent abuses are drafted. They hoped to determine thereby whether it really has value and to start producing vital therapies as soon as possible.

Who's correct? The topic is a complex one, filled with empirical and moral uncertainty. In the end, a moratorium on both applications of cloning makes sense. The concerns are linked, and there is a case to be made even for CPC in some situations.

The Arguments For And Against Cloning for Research and Therapy (CRT)

The aim of CRT is primarily to create stem cells with specific genetic traits. Stem cells are "multipotent precursor cells," which means that they are capable of developing into many different specialized types of cells, such as nerve or muscle cells. Stem cells would be taken from blastocysts (embryos with 100 -200 cells), thereby preventing the clone from ever growing into a child.

The argument in favor of CRT is that it has great potential value for understanding and curing disease. Cloned embryonic stem cells could be particularly useful in research because they could be taken from people who have specific genetically linked diseases, such as Parkinson's disease. They could also be particularly useful in therapy because tissues grown from stem cells with virtually the same genetic makeup as a patient would, it is hoped, overcome certain problems with tissue rejection.

The argument against CRT has two main prongs. First, it is argued that embryos have, from the beginning of their development, a moral status incompatible with being used simply as research tools or sources of tissue. Second, it is argued that there is a slippery slope from CRT to other practices which are at least unacceptable, if not worse than CRT itself. Both arguments, however, can be challenged.

The Problems with the "Moral Status of the Embryo" Argument

The first argument against CRT is simple: if an embryo has, from the moment it starts to develop, the moral status due a born person, then CRT is unjustifiable, no matter what the possible benefits. It simply is impermissible to create a person in order to do research on him or her, killing him or her in the process.

More fundamental than these objections, it seems more plausible to say that the moral status of an embryo is comparatively low at the moment the embryo starts to develop and grows along with the embryo. Indeed, to most people it seems low enough to warrant doing research on blastocysts, at least as long as the research promises substantial health benefits such as a cure for Parkinson's disease or the ability to repair spinal cord injuries.

Those who think the moral status of an embryo, from the moment it starts to develop, is inconsistent with CRT have two objections to the claim that moral status starts low and develops along with the embryo. First, they claim that there is no meaningful place to draw the line. Second, they claim that this idea of growing - rather than absolute and fixed - moral status threatens the basic moral equality of people. Neither argument, however, is convincing.

Drawing Meaningful Lines As An Embryo Develops: Why It Can Be Done

With regard to drawing meaningful lines, there are a number of different properties that emerge in the developing fetus that plausibly carry moral weight.

First, there is the assumption of a form resembling a human form. This resemblance certainly is relevant to engaging our moral emotions.

Second, there is the emergence of human capacities, first of movement and then of sensation. Also, around the same time sensation arises, the fetus becomes viable outside the womb, making it potentially independent.

Finally, after birth, a baby acquires self-consciousness; the child acquires the ability to reason as a moral agent; and the adolescent learns to be responsible for his or her own decisions.

There is good reason to grant a number of basic human rights, such as the right not to be used simply as a research tool, well before birth. But that does not mean that all the basic rights have to attach right at the start.

After all, a number of basic rights, from voting to freedom from paternalistic intervention, don't attach until adulthood. It is not, then, implausible that one's claim not to be killed and used as a research tool can be outweighed by the interests of others when one is just a cluster of cells, and then grows into an absolute right as one grows from a blastocyst, to an embryo with the shape of a person, to a sentient fetus.

What about the claim that tying moral standing to developing human and moral capacities undermines basic human equality?

The threat is that since some people feel more intensely than others, or reason better than others, these people would somehow deserve more rights or more respect - on the theory that they would have more of the capacities deemed to "count" in moral development.

Yet there is simply no reason to think that rights and liberties have to come in degrees just because their underlying traits and capacities do. Basic rights and liberties may depend on having crossed a certain moral threshold, say that of being a sentient human being. And the line demarcating the threshold may be somewhat fuzzy. But once one has crossed the threshold, one is a member of the relevant moral community, and that is all that matters.

The Problem with the "Slippery Slope" Argument Against CRT

The second major argument against CRT contends that if we allow it, we will slide down the slippery slope into worse abuses - most prominently, doing research on more mature embryos and fetuses, and Cloning for the Production of Children (CPC).

People worry about CRT being performed on more mature embryos because they are afraid no moral line in the development of an embryo is sufficiently clear to block the pressure from scientists and patient advocates who would want more knowledge and more cures.

But I doubt the slope is that slippery. As just noted, there is a counter-pressure to show increasing respect to human life as it develops. The thought of thousands of human blastocysts being killed for research purposes is, to most people, far less upsetting than the thought of thousands of women carrying embryos that already look like little people going in to have abortions so that those embryos can be cut up for their tissue. I see no reason to think that allowing the former would deaden us to the moral repugnance of the latter.

Would CRT Lead to CPC? Or Could Cloning Be Confined To Research?

Finally, as for the concern that allowing CRT would lead to more CPC, I have two responses. First, if we balance the illegal creation of a few cloned children against the medical benefits that may come from cloning for research and therapeutic purposes, the latter may well outweigh the former.

Consider a couple in which the man is infertile. They could adopt, or they could get a sperm donor and bring some outsider's biology into the family. But suppose they could safely clone the man instead. They might figure that she, as the birth mother, and he, as the genetic father, would both have a strong tie to the baby. Given the alternatives for this couple, the choice to clone would not necessarily indicate a degree of narcissism inconsistent with providing a loving, nurturing and respectful environment for the child.

Moreover, this sort of family arrangement is no more radical than, say, two women living together who decide to raise a child that one of them bears using donating sperm. As a supporter of the right to raise a child in this kind of "alternative" family structure, I find it difficult to justify denying the right to clone - again, on the assumption that cloning has become safe - in a case such as the one just described.

I don't deny that there are many reasons to be concerned with CPC. What if someone wanted to clone himself ten times? That seems inconsistent with the welfare of those children and morally grotesque. But could we allow cloning and yet restrict it to one clone per person? Perhaps we just should not go down that road.

But then again, perhaps there is a way to strike a sensible balance. And if there is a sensible balance to be struck, then the fact that CRT may make CPC easier or more likely does not militate strongly against CRT.

The Moratorium on CRT and CPC Makes Sense, But An Inflexible Ban Does Not

Cloning is a difficult topic, fraught with empirical uncertainties and uncertain moral boundaries. I am not certain that we should allow either CRT or CPC. Indeed, I agree with those on the Council who would impose a moratorium on cloning - only I would impose a moratorium, and not a ban, on all cloning, keeping the debate open on all of its possible applications.

Alec Walen teaches philosophy of law at the University of Baltimore. He is currently working on a book on Intention and Permissibility. His email address is

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