Cloning, part six: Poverty and exploitation

Reproductive cloning seems unlikely to spread quickly, of course. Costly services serve mainly rich folks, after all — and rich folks are rare (plus, sex is far more fun than any laboratory procedure I can think of). Intriguingly, legalists Eric and Richard Posner have noted that, under certain assumptions, those who stand to benefit most from costly optional cloning would be wealthy females (perhaps explaining some of the gut opposition to cloning in largely patriarchal human populations). Cloning might therefore mediate eugenic discrimination against poor human populations (however, as noted, sexual reproduction may be subject to similar concerns).

In crafting public policy on cloning, we might do well to weigh such real risks — think also of figuring out ways to measure, and thus compare, suffering due to inborn illness inherent to clonal versus sexual reproduction — against foreseeable real benefits. By contrast, we might eschew ethically absolutist claims on the issue. Peppered with phrases like sanctity of human life, such rhetoric steadfastly avoids empirical falsifiability, often exploiting what philosopher Richard Dawkins has called ‘a convention[…]that prejudices based upon religion, as opposed to purely personal prejudices, are especially privileged, self-evidently exempt from the need for supporting argument.’

In 1997, for example, ethicist Leon Kass (whom George W. Bush later tabbed to head his new Bioethics Advisory Council) deemed sheep-cloning to be ‘the work not of nature or nature’s God but of man…playing at being God.’ As in many human behavioral controversies, naturalness here connoted absolute good/right; unnaturalness, absolute evil/wrong. Even beyond the extraneous invocation of a god, such rhetoric appeals at most emotionally, offering no logical reason to equate natural with good (nor, more broadly, any rigorous ontological or epistemological justification of the supposed natural/unnatural distinction).

Kass has more famously invoked ‘the wisdom of repugnance’ in seeking to outlaw human reproductive cloning. Were cloning universally repugnant, of course, a formal ban would be redundant. But Kass eagerly ministers the choir, arguing that those who claim a kneejerk aversion to cloning — however poorly backed by reason — can legitimately bar the technology to all. By such logic, those who quaked at the hubris of Orville and Wilbur Wright could have rightfully nixed all further aviation. Those whose skins crawl on picturing a spider could ban such critters outright (how wise!…). Those claiming to be queasened by sushi-eaters, or by same-sex or ethnically disparate couples, could marshal legal force even if their arguments lacked rational underpinning. Mistaking prudishness for prudence, Kass — perhaps the foremost voice shaping American policy on reproductive technology, at least during the Bush era — envisions heaven as a ludditocracy. How reassuring, perhaps, that he has voiced no urge to clone himself.