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Scientific American

I, Clone

published April 2003 | Comments Off
The Three Laws of Cloning will protect clones and advance science
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In his 1950 science-fiction novel I, Robot, Isaac Asimov presented the Three Laws of Robotics: “1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

The irrational fears people express today about cloning parallel those surrounding robotics half a century ago. So I would like to propose Three Laws of Cloning that also clarify three misunderstandings: 1. A human clone is a human being no less unique in his or her personhood than an identical twin. 2. A human clone has all the rights and privileges that accompany this legal and moral status. 3. A human clone is to be accorded the dignity and respect due any member of our species.

Although such simplifications risk erasing the rich nuances found in ethical debates over pioneering research, they do aid in attenuating risible fears often associated with such advances. It appears that the Raelians have not succeeded in Xeroxing themselves, but it is clear that someone, somewhere, sometime soon is going to generate a human clone. And once one team has succeeded, it will be Katy bar the door for others to bring on the clones.

If cloning produces genetic monstrosities that render it impractical as another form of fertility enhancement, then it will not be necessary to ban it, because no one will use it. If cloning does work, however, there is no reason to forbid it, because the three common reasons given for implementing restrictions are myths. I call them the Identical Personhood Myth, the Playing God Myth, and the Human Rights and Dignity Myth.

The Identical Personhood Myth is well represented by activist Jeremy Rifkin: “It’s a horrendous crime to make a Xerox of someone. You’re putting a human into a genetic straitjacket. Baloney. He and fellow cloning critics have the argument bass ackward. As environmental determinists, they should be arguing: “Clone all you like — you’ll never produce another you, because environment matters as much as heredity.” The best scientific evidence to date indicates that roughly half the variance among us is accounted for by genetics and the rest by environment. It is impossible to duplicate the near-infinite number of permutations that come into play during the development of each individual, so cloning is no threat to unique personhood.

The Playing God Myth has numerous promoters, among the latest being Stanley M. Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics at Duke University: “The very attempt to clone a human being is evil. The assumption that we must do what we can do is fueled by the Promethean desire to be our own creators.” In support of this myth, he is not alone. A 1997 Time/CNN poll revealed that 74 percent of 1,005 Americans answered “yes” to the question “Is it against God’s will to clone human beings?” Balderdash. Cloning may seem to be “playing God” only because it is unfamiliar. Consider earlier examples of once “God-like” fertility technologies that are now cheerfully embraced because we have become accustomed to them, such as in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer.

The Human Rights and Dignity Myth is embodied in the Roman Catholic Church’s official statement against cloning, based on the belief that it denies “the dignity of human procreation and of the conjugal union,” as well as in a Sunni Muslim cleric’s demand that “science must be regulated by firm laws to preserve humanity and its dignity.” Bunkum. Clones will be no more alike than twins raised in separate environments, and no one is suggesting that twins do not have rights or dignity or that they should be banned.

Instead of restricting or preventing the technology, I propose that we adopt the Three Laws of Cloning, the principles of which are already incorporated in the laws and language of the U.S. Constitution, and allow science to run its course. The soul of science is found in courageous thought and creative experiment, not in restrictive fear and prohibitions. For science to progress, it must be given the opportunity to succeed or fail. Let’s run the cloning experiment and see what happens.

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