The Ethics of Human Cloning

The American Enterprise, March 1, 1999.

Social critics James Q. Wilson and Leon Kass debate the social, psychological and ethical ramifications of human cloning. Wilson supports limited cloning to two-parent heterosexual families and believes the source of the egg should be restricted to race, ethnicity or sex, but parents should not deliberately try to create designer babies. Kass responds the requirement of a two parent family has not been realized in in-vitro fertilization regulations or even for adoption. Moreover he contends that cloning is the twin not the offspring of its source and that cloned child will more often be scrutinized in relation to the older child. A society that treats cloning as acceptable rationalizes fabrication as procreation.

In a new book from AEI Press, two prominent social critics clash over a controversial technology that is likely to be tried with humans in the near future. Following is an edited excerpt from the debate between James Q. Wilson and Leon Kass. Wilson, emeritus professor at UCLA, is chairman of the American Enterprise Institute’s Board of Academic Advisers. Kass, who holds an M.D. and a Ph.D. in biochemistry, is a Brady Fellow at AEI. The book-length exchange between these two men is available free from TAE as part of a special promotion.


“Family structure, not the method of reproduction, is what matters.”

LIKE MOST PEOPLE, I instinctively recoil from the idea of cloning human beings. But we ought to pause and identify what in the process is so distressing. My preliminary view is that the central problem is not creating an identical twin but creating it without parents. Children born of a woman–however the conception is produced–will in the great majority of cases enjoy that special irrational affection that has been vital to human upbringings for millennia. If she is married to a man and they, like the great majority of married couples, invest energy, love, and commitment in the child, the child is likely to do well.

My argument is that the structure of the family a child is born into is more important than the sexual process by which the child is produced. If Leon Kass and other opponents of cloning think that sexuality is more important than families, they should object to any form of assisted reproduction that does not involve parental coition. Many such forms now exist. Children are adopted by parents who did not give them birth. Artificial insemination produces children without sexual congress. Some forms of such insemination rely on sperm produced by a man other than the woman’s husband, while other forms involve the artificial insemination of a surrogate mother who will relinquish the baby to a married couple. By in vitro fertilization, eggs and sperm can be joined in a Petri dish and then transferred into the woman’s uterus.

I have mixed views about assisted reproduction. Some forms I endorse, others I worry about, still others I oppose. The two principles on which my views rest concern, first, the special relationship between infant and mother that is the product of childbirth, however conception was arranged, and second, the great advantage to children that comes from growing up in an intact, two-parent family.

Assisted reproduction, whether by artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, is now relatively common. In none of those cases is the child the result of marital sex. And in some cases the child isnot genetically related to at least one parent. I am aware of no study that shows in vitro fertilization to have harmed the children’s mental or psychological status or their relationships with parents. A study in England compared children conceived by in vitro fertilization, or by artificial insemination with sperm from an unknown donor, with children who were sexually conceived and grew up in either birth oradoptive families. By every measure of parenting, the children who were the product of either an artificial fertilization or inseminationby a donor did better than children who were naturally conceived. The better parenting should not be surprising. Those parents had been struggling to have children; when a new technology made it possible, they were delighted, and that delight motivated them to be especially supportive of their offspring.

Some observers are opposed to all of these arrangements, no matterwhat their effect on children. Paul Ramsey argued in 1970 that for any third party–say, an egg or sperm donor–to be involved violates the marriage covenant. That is also the view of the Roman Catholic Church. My view is different: If the child is born of a woman who is part of a two-parent family, and both parents work hard to raise him or her properly, we poor mortals have done all that man and God might expect of us.

Matters become more complex when a surrogate mother is involved. There, a woman is inseminated by a man so that she may bear a child tobe given to another couple. That process uses a woman’s body from the start for purposes against which her own instincts, as well as our own moral judgments, rebel.

The case of Baby M in New Jersey began with a child born to Mary Beth Whitehead. She had entered into a contractual agreement with William and Elizabeth Stern to deliver the child to them. Mrs. Whitehead had become pregnant through artificial fertilization by Mr. Stern’s sperm. After the baby’s birth, Mrs. Whitehead refused to surrender it;the Sterns sued. The judge decided that the contract should be honored and the baby should go to the Sterns. On appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided unanimously that the contract was invalid but gave the baby to Mr. Stern and allowed Mrs. Whitehead visiting rights.

The contract, according to the court, was void because it illegally used money to procure a child. More importantly, because no woman can truly give informed consent to relinquishing an infant she has notyet borne and seen, Mrs. Whitehead had not entered into a valid contract. At that time, and so far as I know even today, in every state but Wyoming no woman can agree to allowing her child to be adopted unless that agreement is ratified after birth.

Why, then, did the court give the child to Mr. Stern? The court did not like Mrs. Whitehead. She was poor, ill-educated, moved frequently, received public assistance, and was married to an alcohol abuser.To me, Mrs. Whitehead’s condition was largely irrelevant. The central fact was that she was the baby’s mother. The overwhelming body of biological and anthropological evidence supports the view that women become deeply attached to their children. The mother-child bond is oneof the most powerful in nature and is essential to the existence, tosay nothing of the health, of human society.

The child belonged to its mother, period. That does not mean that all forms of surrogate mothering are wrong, but it at least means that the buyer of the surrogate’s services is completely at risk. Given that risk, surrogate motherhood will never become popular, but it will occur in some cases.

I favor limiting cloning to intact, heterosexual families and placing sharp restrictions on the source of the eggs. We do not want families planning to have a movie star, basketball player, or high-energy physicist as an offspring. But I confess I am not clear as to how those limits might be drawn, and if no one can solve that puzzle, I would join Kass in banning cloning. Perhaps the best solution is a kind of screened lottery akin to what doctors performing in vitro fertilization now do with donated sperm. One can match his race or ethnicity and even select a sex, but beyond that he takes his chances.

I am persuaded that if only married couples can clone, and if we sharply limit the sources of the embryo they can implant in the woman,cloning will be quite rare. Sex is more fun than cloning, and artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization preserve the element of genetic chance that most people, I think, favor. Dr. Kass is right to stress the mystery and uncertainty of sexual union. That is why hardly any woman with a fertile husband who could obtain sperm from a donor bank will do so. Procreation is a delight.


“Cloning turns procreation into manufacture.”

WILSON BEGINS, AS I DO, with repugnance. He acknowledges his own instinctive recoil from the idea of human cloning but does not quite trust his sense of moral disquiet, and sets out to reason it away. That places the burden of proof on those who object to cloning rather than on the proponents. Worse, it requires that the reasons offered be finally acceptable to utilitarians who measure only in terms of tangible harms and benefits but who are generally blind to the deeper meanings of things.

Wilson uses the social acceptance of in vitro fertilization to rebut objections against laboratory conception of human life. But by removing human conception from the human body and by introducing new partners in reproduction (scientists and physicians), in vitro fertilization did more than supply what one or both bodies lack to produce an infant. By putting the origin of human life literally in human hands,it began a process that would lead, in practice, to the increasing technical mastery of human generation and, in thought, to the continuing erosion of respect for the mystery of sexuality and human renewal.The very existence of in vitro fertilization, notwithstanding its real benefits, becomes a justification for the next steps in turning procreation into manufacture. The arrival of cloning, far from gaining legitimacy from the precedent of in vitro fertilization, should instead awaken those who previously saw no difficulty with starting human life in Petri dishes.

Wilson does profess sympathy with those who think cloning is contrary to nature, but nature’s normative pointings have become invisibleto him. Here is probably the biggest philosophical reason for our difference.

At the center of my objection to cloning is my belief in the profundity of sex. At the center of Wilson’s is the concern that all children have parents. But the fact is we will be increasingly incapable of defending the institution of marriage and the two-parent family if we are indifferent to its natural grounding in sex. Can we ensure that all children will have two parents if we ignore the natural sexual foundations of parenthood?

Cloning is asexual reproduction. A clone is the twin rather than the offspring of its “source.” It has no parents, biologically speaking, unless its “parents” are the mother and father of the person from whom it was cloned.

Wilson is willing to define motherhood solely by the act of givingbirth. And if the clone’s birth mother is married, her husband will be, by (social) definition, its father. In that way Wilson tries to give a virtually normal biparental identity to this radically aparental child, but in doing so Wilson clings to nature and the natural facts of gestation and parturition as his anchor. For that reason he argues elsewhere for a ban on the laboratory growth of a “newborn” child from sperm to term: “Without human birth, the parents’ attitude toward the infant would be deeply compromised.”

By playing down cloning’s psychological problems of identity and individuality, Wilson is able to treat it as an innocent prospect. Butthere are unique dangers in mixing the twin relationship with the parent-child relationship. Virtually no parent is going to be able to treat a clone of himself or herself as one does a child generated by the lottery of sex. The new life will constantly be scrutinized in relation to that of the older copy. Even where undue parental expectations on the clone (say, to live the same life, only without its errors)are avoided, the child is likely to be ever a curiosity. Moreover, clones, because they are the flesh and blood (and the look-alike) of only one parent, are likely to be especially implicated in tensions between the parents. In the event of a divorce, will mommy still love the clone of daddy?

Wilson is also naive in believing that cloning can be confined to married couples seeking a remedy for childlessness. In vitro fertilization has not been so restricted; single women now regularly use artificial insemination with donor sperm. Commercial sperm banks are thriving, including those that specialize in eugenics (by providing only sperm from “geniuses”). Couples interested in cloning, especially those who have figured out the dangers of self-cloning, will certainly want to make use of “high-class” donor nuclei. Cloning provides the powerful opening salvo in the campaign to exercise control over the quality of offspring. The dangerous attitude that sees children as products for manipulation rather than gifts to be treasured will be further accelerated.

Given the fracture of the once-respected and solid bonds among sex, love, procreation, and stable marriage, and the relentless march oftechnology, it will prove impossible to preserve Wilson’s faint hopes for limiting cloning to the sphere of traditional parenthood and family life. The right to reproduce (or not) is now widely regarded as a right belonging to individuals: Who are Wilson and I to stand in the way of any unmarried woman’s desire for personal fulfillment through motherhood of a clone?

The right to reproduce is also being expanded to include a right to the type of child one wishes. Parents already exercise some choice,through genetic screening, over the quality of their children. Strange requests are already being voiced. Lobbyists for the congenitally deaf are seeking to abort non-deaf fetuses as part of their campaign to “normalize” deafness and to provide only deaf children for the deaf. Gay rights organizations urged the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to declare in favor of cloning. Some advocates even argued that, should homosexuality be shown to have a genetic basis, homosexuals would have an obligation to reproduce through cloning to preserve their kind!

Even if human cloning is rarely undertaken, a society in which it is tolerated is no longer the same society–any more than is a society that permits incest or cannibalism or slavery on even a small scale. It is a society that has forgotten how to shudder, that rationalizes away the abominable. A society that allows cloning has, whether it knows it or not, tacitly said yes to converting procreation into fabrication, and to treating our children as pure projects of our will.