Friday, May 20, 2005

Attack On The Clones II: Debate Wetter

Delightful to see that the breakthrough in human therapeutic cloning has made the debate over reproductive cloning precisely none at all more coherent.

While, pleasingly, a handful of reproductive scientists (including Robert Edwards, who pioneered IVF in the 70s, and James 'Double Helix' Watson) have now come out saying repro cloning should be considered an option for childless couples at the end of their assisted-reproductive-technologies (ART) tether, the opposing position comes out, comme toujours, only in the fuzziest and most indefensible terms.

'Ethical campaigners', it appears, 'worry that cloning could be hijacked to create multiple copies of a person.' Tell if I'm being dense, but what does this actually mean? It can't be a religiously-based argument; a Christian, who presumably believes that the embryo once created is immediately ensouled, can hardly expect that it would possess a copy of the genetic donor's soul. To a Christian, therefore, the clone would have to be a different person, not a copy of the donor. And surely better that an artificially-created embryo be allowed to live and grow up than killed, right? More life good, if you're 'pro-life' and all?

So I'm guessing it's a non-religious argument, presumably based on some kind of hazy theory of biologically-based identity. In which case it's a species of crude genetic determinism truly shocking in its abject lack of scientific rigor. I don't think even Richard Dawkins would tell you that the genetic complement of a human being constitutes that individual's identity tout court. The notion that, by creating an embryo using an existing person's DNA and then allowing that embryo to be born and raised in the world into an adult human, you would end up with an exact copy of the original person, is reminiscent only of the kind of tissue-thin SF plot hook that even Hollywood can't get away with anymore. 'The 6th Day', anyone?

I mean, if that argument held any water at all, shouldn't we be banning monozygotic twins? Where exactly do the ethics of this premise reside?

Even the pro-repro docs are regrettably waffly: 'The scientists agreed that cloning should be used only to assist in the reproductive process, rather than replacing it, and that copying a person would be wrong. "I don't see any purpose of cloning an individual," said Dr Verlinksy.'

Just me, or are 'wrong' and 'purposeless' two entirely different concepts? (Unless maybe you're John Stuart Mill, but I really don't think that's what we're getting at here.) And what even is this doc saying? He's pro the use of cloning to assist in the reproductive process, but he doesn't want to clone individuals? How would that work please? Does he want to cut up and hand-recombine chromosomes from both parents? I'm no reproductive biologist (yet), but as far as I know it's kind of definitional that a clone is made from the genetic material of a single individual. Otherwise you've got IVF, which is hardly controversial in the mainstream these days.

(Oh, and the idea that we need to specify that cloning shouldn't 'replace' the reproductive process? Uh-huh. I mean, why fuck when you can just hand over a cheek swab and call it a day?)

I find this failure of debate extremely frustrating. The most advanced reproductive scientists in the world feel constrained to give ground to some entirely unsubstantiated, gelatinous pressure of 'wrongness'. It's actually not at all dissimilar to the pro-choice movement's wrongheaded insistence on calling for abortion to be 'rare'--to call for a thing while simultaneously ceding that it's undesirable and should be minimized isn't exactly a prizewinning argumentative strategy. I do wish people would think a little bit more rigorously about ends and means in these debates.

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