April 16, 2024


 Although scientists regularly swear that reproductive cloning is unethical because it is unsafe, almost none of them grasp the nettle of whether it would be ethical if it were safe. Fortunately there are bioethicists who can do the hard yards for them. Writing in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, D. Elsner, of the University of Melbourne, argues that the right to reproductive freedom outweighs the possible harm done to cloned childen. "People wishing to reproduce by cloning should be able to do so, provided that there is no reasonable alternative, and trials of HRC [human reproductive cloning] as an experimental medical procedure should not be prohibited." However, Elsner baulks at declaring that cloning should attract government funding — for the time being, at least.

But what about the possible harm to a child? Most cloned animals suffer from poor health and, like Dolly the sheep, die early. Having seen the deformities which afflict cloned animals, scientists feel that it would be cruel to create a cloned human.

Elsner responds that existence is better than non-existence. Furthermore, parents and doctors know that children created through IVF face a substantially higher risk of bad health and birth defects and yet no one is calling for IVF clinics to be closed down. "Few people would seriously suggest that IVF, with all the benefits it has brought to infertile people, should be banned on the basis of these findings." IVF, too, had its early failures and seemed terribly unsafe in the 1970s. One popular IVF technique, intracytoplasmic sperm injection, was hardly tested on animals, and introduced without an experimental phase.

As one of a portfolio of techniques for artificial reproduction, reproductive cloning could be useful in at least two circumstances. First, a demand for genetic relatedness. Although at first blush it might sound grotesque and egocentric to create a child with the same genetic make-up as oneself, this is already one of the main reasons why people use IVF to conceive a child. Otherwise they would adopt children instead of making them in a Petri dish. Second, for spare parts. Children could be created as a source of healthy tissue for adopted siblings who have no genetic match. Since this is already an accepted practice at many IVF clinics, it is difficult to argue that children should not be cloned for the same purpose.