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On human cloning

The Economist this week offers a valuable overview of the views in support of and opposition to the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, which would make any and all cloning of human cells a federal crime.

The article details five basic arguments for banning cloning, but only two of them are actual arguments against the practice itself (the others concern possible consequences of the practice, but which don't necessarily follow, and which might also be addressed separately). One of these two is simple precaution against cloning human babies; fewer than 5 percent of cloned animal embryos result in a healthy birth, so the risks are still too great to permit such cloning of humans. This makes sense, but doesn't speak against therapeutic cloning (in which a cloned embryo, as Michael Gazzaniga tells the Economist, "has no trajectory to becoming a human being").

The other argument does apply to therapeutic cloning: Cloning entails the killing of a potential human being, by removing the nucleus from an otherwise viable human egg (and killing potential human beings is, you know, bad). It's tempting not to take this seriously — we're talking about tiny clusters of cells here, at most — but laughing it off would be a mistake. Destroying living embryos has some cost; the question is, how much? (I'm not sure, but it can't compare to the loss of an actual human life, I'd think.)

The same goes for the other arguments about the risks posed by legal cloning. They do raise some threat of harm to society, but it's not clear how much. And we must ask, Does it make sense to criminalize a practice that, in and of itself, constitutes only a minimal harm, when that practice may prove to be enormously beneficial?

I don't think so. In an ideal world, everyone would be protected from every harm. But in this world, disease inflicts far greater harm — and on living human beings, not just "potential" ones — than human cloning is ever likely to. Cloning could dramatically reduce that harm. Overall, it's a risk worth taking.

[For further reading, also offers an excellent compilation of articles, essays and other resources on the issues surrounding cloning and stem cell research.]

May 14, 2002 4:29 PM

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