LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles. -- The technology for genetically "duplicating" animal embryos has just been used to twin human embryos. Scientists have been on the verge of this for some time, so the only surprise, if any, is that it didn't occur earlier.
Did a sense of ethical or legal impropriety slow the research? Or was it a shortage of resources?
Cloning is asexual reproduction that creates one or more beings genetically identical to the "source." In this case, however, scientists have genetically duplicated embryos -- "twinning." (None was implanted in a woman, and none survived.) They have not replicated the genome of an existing person to form a nascent genetic duplicate -- a feat not yet at hand. (For convenience, I'll use "cloning" to cover both processes.)
As a form of genetic planning, cloning displaces the "natural lottery" with a specific set of genes taken from another entity, whether an embryo or a grown being. Of course, we have little idea of what sort of person will develop if we have cloned an embryo that has no developed genetic predecessor.
Genetics does not create a book of life -- "Genes 'R' Us" is too simple. But it does establish a developmental template within which environment and genetics will interact, and so we should carefully assess it.
How should we think about cloning? It would be a mistake to focus solely on worst-case scenarios -- e.g., clone armies of identical Attilas, storage facilities to hold clones for use as spare parts.
We need first to ask some basic questions in order to sort through the issues: Why would anyone clone an embryo or a fully formed adult? And what would be the likely consequences (intended and unintended) of doing so?
Consider a likely example: A couple produces very few embryos and their fertility is thus impaired. Cloning of their embryos provides a better chance to have a child.
If this is all that is involved, what intrinsic harm is in it? The simple complaint that it is "unnatural" or "playing God" is unpersuasive: Caesarean sections and amniocentesis are unnatural too. All we have here is a new way to form a nuclear family.
The better question is: What are the instrumental objections to cloning? The adverse consequences? Shouldn't society have to specify some serious risks before telling people that they can't reproduce the way they want to?
The procedure is certainly not risk-free. We cannot predict the course of embryonic development. And if in fact a child is born, what then? Perhaps the clone-child would be unsettled by knowledge of his or her "high-tech" origins. But even if so, why -- from the child's point of view -- would nonexistence be preferable to feeling unsettled?
What of the risk that the child would be intrusively conditioned to be what its parents want? This might be realistic if we were trying to "Xerox" an adult (Daddy? Mozart? Michael Jordan?) or to use a second, cryopreserved embryo after seeing how the first turned out. Where the cloning is simply to enhance fertility, however, there seems to be no greater risk of parental overreaching than in the average case of parenthood. Such infertility relief doesn't necessarily push us down a slippery slope toward treating persons as property.
Suppose the motive for bringing a cryopreserved embryo to term is to replace a child who was lost? Is it obviously impermissible for the parents to seek such a "replacement"?
One risk is, again, that the child's autonomy or well-being would be impaired by excessive parental efforts to mold him or her in the late sibling's image, or simply by the child's sense that he or she is valued only as a replacement. Of course, responsible parents try to channel their children into appropriate paths, but channeling is one thing, conditioning another (though they are sometimes indistinguishable).
Are such possibilities (how likely? how extensive?) a proper basis on which society may interfere with personal reproductive choices? I am not suggesting that reproductive freedom is an absolute; I am simply pointing out that reproductive freedom may be a value that entails risk, and the risk must be serious and specifiable before others may interfere with our wishes.
We can ask similar question about other possible scenarios -- say, bearing "twins" years apart. If the older twin is "successful," reproducing a younger one may seem less risky. True, the younger twin may be cowed by its older "model" (or the reverse) -- but it may not. And from the twins' points of view, again, it's unlikely that either would prefer nonexistence.
One "worst-case" scenario, however, is more threatening: cloning embryos for spare parts -- including vital, nonpaired organs such as the heart.
This possibility might in theory be avoided by advanced technology: If scientists master the intricacies of cell specialization, they may be able to culture separate organs without producing a complete human being.
But producing a fully formed human simply for spare parts would indeed be unacceptable. Let's assume (perhaps heroically) that such "spares" could be grown to physical maturity without any cognitive development. While some may argue that these "parts factories" would not be true "persons," they might nevertheless come within the protection of the 13th Amendment's ban on involuntary servitude -- and of laws forbidding homicide and mayhem.
The long-term prospect of cloning both developed persons and embryos -- taken together with the possibility of genetic engineering of specific traits through manipulating sperm, ova or early embryos -- requires us to assess yet another risk: the prospect that our very conception of ourselves will be transformed -- from an image of free, autonomous individuals into that of objects to be manufactured for their specific traits.
That risk bears serious attention. If we clone an adult because the person has traits we admire, what risks of intrusive meddling does the cloned offspring run as he or she grows up? If we engineer embryos to create taller or more intelligent persons (the latter will be very difficult), are we manufacturing "objects" to whom we bond only on the contingency that our genetic plan "works"? Or are we producing more autonomous persons because they are "better endowed"? Technology has a way of generating such paradoxes.
The risks of genetic engineering move many observers to ask whether we should recognize at least a moral right to an "unplanned" identity, and perhaps to a "unique" identity (barring natural multiple births).
But recognizing such rights may impair parental rights. Is there a legal right to reproduce -- whether in the customary way or with technological assistance? The U.S. Supreme Court probably views traditional reproduction as a "liberty interest" that can be compromised only for serious reasons. It is possible, however, that some justices would be unwilling to go beyond this to protect "nontraditional" modes of reproduction.
It is hard to say how this dispute will turn out. It is even hard to say whether the risks charted earlier would be considered serious enough to trump a reproductive right to clone, assuming it were constitutionally protected. Stay tuned to the Supreme Court reports.
In the meantime: If we think certain cloning practices are unacceptably risky -- e.g., creating persons who will serve as medicine cabinets; commercial trade in embryos -- it may be possible to enact enforceable partial restrictions. But a total ban seems unnecessary. Allowing one thing doesn't commit us to allowing everything that resembles it in some way.
Michael H. Shapiro, a specialist in bioethics, is the holder of the Dorothy W. Nelson Professorship of Law at USC. He wrote this commentary for the Sunday opinion section of the Los Angeles Daily News.