The ethics of cloning is a common topic in bioethics and encompasses the moral, political, and philosophical questions raised by the creation of clone organisms for both medical and reproductive purposes. For the most part, clones are created for medical research and therapeutic practice, for example to obtain embryonic stem cells or grow organs for donation. Reproductive cloning is more commonly applied to animals than humans. De-extinction ethics is a prominent subcategory of cloning ethics, and within that area of discussion the ethics of genetic engineering strongly overlaps with the ethics of cloning.
In terms of legality, many forms of cloning are restricted; nearly all governmental and religious organizations oppose reproductive cloning of humans, and human cloning is explicitly illegal in many states and countries. Even major scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science have suggested a ban on human reproductive cloning until safety and ethical issues can be addressed.
Discussions in cloning ethics
Use of clones for medicine
One of the major uses of cloning is the production of compatible biological materials for transplantation, these generally being stem cells. This is a major ethical discussion in the modern day, since the harvesting of embryonic stem cells requires the creation and destruction of an embryo. While the embryo only reaches the blastocyst stage before being destroyed and thus does not develop a complex form of self-awareness or sapeince, the question of when an embryo is considered a person with rights is still heavily debated. Common criteria for personhood include biological developments such as the presence of fingerprints, a heartbeat, or neuron activity, but the exact moment at which an embryo acquires these features is not easy to detect with precision. Some religious groups argue that personhood should be considered at the moment of fertilization, which would prohibit the use of embryos for medical purposes wholesale.
The growth of whole organs is another possible medical application of cloning, but this would push the issue of clone rights even further. If practiced, the line between therapeutic and reproductive cloning would become blurred, since these clones would be allowed to grow well past the embryonic stage and into childhood or adulthood. Once they reached a predetermined point of maturity, their organs would be harvested for transplantation into the person they were cloned from. Most bioethicists agree that this would be highly immoral, but something similar is actually already practiced; since 2001, “savior siblings” have been conceived for the explicit purpose of harvesting their organs for unhealthy children. Upon learning that their child has a life-threatening disease that requires organ transplantation, the parents may use in-vitro fertilization to conceive a second child and screen for health conditions. A healthy embryo will be allowed to grow and the stem cells are harvested to save the life of the first child. Harvesting whole organs is far less common, and the savior sibling can often grow normally once the unhealthy sibling is cured. This practice is legal in many countries, and a 2004 survey of four thousand American citizens revealed that 61% of the people who responded found this practice ethically acceptable. Bioethicists including Jacob M. Appel argue that clones created for organ transplantation will be viewed as heroes in a future society where this practice is legal.
Science fiction writers and futurists have envisioned societies in which clones of wealthy people are kept unaware of their intended purpose until the moment they are collected, killed, and the organs harvested. Usually, the clones live seemingly normal lives as members of the working class. This would be beneficial to a capitalist society as it would permit long-term exploitation of the clone for high-stress, low-pay labor until the moment they are required for organ transplantation, but these science fiction works are usually written as warnings against the use of cloning technology for such a purpose rather than as endorsements of it. This concept has become widely opposed in the general public.
Political views on this are mostly influenced by religion, but also by economics. Stem cell therapy is a highly profitable field of medicine, and therefore even some conservative politicians will permit it (whether or not they do so openly is a matter of their standing in their political party). Others firmly oppose its legality on the basis that, if made widely available, it would increase public health enough to harm the pharmaceutical industry. Transplanted organs from clones cannot result in organ rejection since they are genetically identical to the recipient, and therefore there is no need for immunosuppressive drugs. Between this and the potential elimination of long-term diseases caused by organ malfunction or failure, stem cell therapy is a threat to some drug manufacturers.
Status of clones as people
The question of what rights clones have extends beyond their use as medical commodities. In a society where reproductive cloning is practiced, clones might be expected to behave a particular way by the people who created or nurtured them; if a clone is a replacement for a person who has died, for example, the clone might be expected to look and act like the person they were cloned from. An example of this is Maisie Lockwood, a clone of Sir Benjamin Lockwood‘s deceased daughter Charlotte. Originally, she was cloned by her mother as an individual, but after Charlotte’s death this changed. Her family, grieving Charlotte, raised Maisie to behave like Charlotte did. Among other things, she was strongly encouraged to speak proper Queen’s English in the same accent as her mother. While the pressure placed on her was not extreme and she was genuinely loved by her family members, it is not difficult to imagine a situation in which a clone’s right to individualistic self-determination could become much more restricted.
Political and religious views on whether or not a clone can be considered a person are extremely mixed. Reproductive cloning is opposed on many fronts by religious groups, with a common justification being that the group’s deity has a specific plan in mind for the lineage of the human species and that clones are not a part of it. In religious groups where gender roles are important, it is argued that clones are created from a single parent, rather than one male and one female, and that this (and other technology-assisted non-traditional forms of reproduction) is therefore heretical. The opposition to reproductive cloning is not universal, though; some Orthodox Jewish rabbis and some Hindu people permit cloning as a form of reproduction for infertile couples. Many Christian organizations oppose therapeutic cloning because of the belief that a person’s identity is assigned at conception, rather than an arbitrarily-designated later point in life, and that they have the right to not be destroyed. However, the United Church of Christ does permit therapeutic cloning because it is used to save the lives of children with terminal conditions. The argument of whether or not a fully-developed baby has more intrinsic value than a blastocyst is one of the most hotly debated issues in religious bioethical discussion.
Conservative groups are especially conflicted on whether or not a clone should be considered a person. While religious conservatives mostly oppose therapeutic cloning on the grounds that embryos ought not to be destroyed, even to save a life, the most extreme among them believe that a fully-grown clone would be “soulless” and that its existence would be an affront to the divine plan. In this view, clone embryos have rights, but clone children and adults do not. Though it is highly publicized on social media, this view of clones as unequal or subhuman is not actually widely supported by religious groups, who largely believe that while cloning is itself morally questionable at best, children resulting from cloning should be treated with love and respect.
Alteration to family structure
A less-appreciated problem of human cloning is what it would mean for family structure and social dynamics. A clone is genetically identical to the original person, making them twins from a genetic perspective but parent and child from a hereditary perspective. This would create some confusion as to what the familial relationship between original and clone would actually be. For example, Sir Benjamin Lockwood raised a clone of his daughter as his granddaughter (she was unaware of her cloned status until after her grandfather’s death). While they acted as grandparent and grandchild, genetically speaking Maisie was the twin sister of Charlotte and the daughter of Sir Benjamin. This is further complicated by the fact that Maisie would be genetically the daughter of Sir Benjamin’s late wife, but was born from Charlotte. From a genetic perspective, Maisie Lockwood’s father and grandfather were the same person.
Families would also be able to grow in new ways if reproductive cloning became commonplace. Natural human reproduction requires the genetic recombination of two different people with compatible gametes, but cloning allows for a person to produce offspring without a partner at all. If the clones are unaltered, they will be genetically identical to the original parent, but some scientific practices allow for the clone to incorporate DNA from other people, including those with whom the parent could not have naturally reproduced. This has potential applications for infertile couples, but can also be utilized to allow couples with non-compatible gametes (such as homosexual couples) to produce children that are genetically theirs. In 2016, scientists at the New Hope Fertility Center performed a spindle transfer mitochondrial donation to allow a woman with Leigh syndrome to give birth to a healthy baby. This baby has cytoplasm and mitochondria from a surrogate mother, but the DNA of the biological mother and father. Effectively, this baby has three parents. Cloning would make practices such as this, and the unconventional family relationships they result in, more common in society. Culture would have to undergo changes to accommodate for these emerging types of familial relationships; in conservative cultures this would be especially difficult due to societal inertia and resistance to change.
Circumventing extinction and evolution
Cloning of non-human species is generally less controversial than human cloning, but is not without its serious ethical questions to contemplate. One reason that animals are cloned is the preservation of endangered species, or the resurrection of species which have been lost. Usually, the goal is to reintroduce these threatened or extinct organisms back into their natural habitats, but once an ecological niche is vacated, the ecosystem begins to change. An animal brought back into its habitat may find a different environment than its ancestors, one in which it no longer has a place. In species that have been extinct for a long time, such as the woolly mammoth, the environment has changed so much that they may not be able to survive; alternately, if they do survive, they would displace the species that have evolved during their absence. In other cases, using cloning to bolster the populations of animals that are becoming extinct through natural causes rather than human intervention could have unforeseen consequences for future evolution.
The most extreme example of this is the de-extinction practices pioneered by International Genetic Technologies during the 1980s, which brought back Mesozoic life forms (some of which had been extinct for over a hundred million years). Earth has become nearly unrecognizable in some ways since these organisms last lived; genetic engineering was necessary to allow the organisms to survive at all. These life forms were never intended by InGen to exist in the wild, and indeed there are no niches for them in today’s world. When they enter the ecosystem, they must displace existing species in order to live. In smaller ecosystems, such as islands like Isla Nublar and Isla Sorna, there are no large animals to compete with the Mesozoic organisms, which can quickly become invasive. Even in relatively healthy ecosystems, the sudden introduction of populations of large animals can cause damage, driving native species from their homes and competing with them for resources.
Ecosystems are so complex that it is difficult to know every detail about the relationships in them, and it can be impossible to predict what kind of impact any alteration will have. Ethical questions about cloning endangered or extinct species are mostly based around this idea, as well as the possible impacts that human actions can have on the future of evolution. These concerns go beyond the scientific; in some philosophies and religions, nature must progress along a sequence of predetermined events, and interfering with this “plan” is thought to bring devastation and divine punishment. These beliefs are rooted in the fact that Earth’s history must have had to follow a fairly precise series of natural events in order to end up in its present state. For example, had the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event been prevented or mitigated, mammal evolution would have taken a very different course, and primates (including humans) may have evolved differently or not at all. In cloning ethics, it is impossible to predict the course that evolution will take in the future, and therefore we cannot know how our actions have influenced it. Some bioethicists argue that it is not up to humans to decide which species to save from extinction.
Other questions of animal rights relate to cloning. Some of the uses of reproductive cloning are the replication of animals for agriculture, science, and the pet trade. While this reduces pressure on wild animals by generating a larger captive population and thus reducing the demand for hunting and specimen collection, it results in many animals being created in laboratory conditions without ever having a chance at a natural life. Most of these are agricultural animals such as cattle, which are already subject to inhumane conditions in factory farms. Laboratory animals may also be subject to painful treatments in the course of research. Some animal rights activists oppose animal cloning in its entirety because of this, but it is currently practiced in several countries. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration declared in 2006 that meat and dairy products from cloned animals are safe for consumption and indistinguishable from those produced by animals bred naturally. American companies and retailers are not required to identify which food products were obtained from cloned animals.
A more scientific argument against mass animal cloning is the resources it would consume. Raising an animal is resource-intensive, and since most of these animals would be cloned for agribusiness, the ability to create large numbers of them would contribute to the degradation of the biosphere. While the cloning of pets would in theory alleviate pressure on wild populations by reducing the demand for collection, the damage caused by massively increasing agricultural runoff, waste, and emissions would negate any positive effect brought on by mass animal cloning.
Another possible issue is that animals created by a company could be considered property of that company, especially if genetically modified, and thereby denied the rights that are awarded to naturally-bred animals. InGen is an example of a company which denied rights to its cloned animals. The de-extinct life it created was patented and intended only for exhibition in theme parks. This commodification of life forms is considered immoral by many animal rights groups, such as the Dinosaur Protection Group, but has been upheld by law since the 2003 amendments to the Gene Guard Act.
De-extinct animal rights are a hot issue in the United States and worldwide, especially since the 2015 closure of Jurassic World. Ethical issues discussed in the Gene Guard Act have now been revived, particularly the question of whether or not scientific entities have an obligation to de-extinct animals which they create. Many members of the public believe that the answer is yes, including the DPG, but Masrani Global Corporation has denied responsibility. This position was reinforced by the United States government including the President in 2018, with the decision of de-extinct animal rights ultimately being that it is the company’s decision to take responsibility or not and there is no legal obligation. Some non-governmental organizations including the lobbyist group Extinction Now! take a very firm stance against de-extinct animal rights, particularly the rights of predatory animals capable of harming humans. While the views held by Extinction Now! are considered especially reactionary, there are prominent members of the public who do agree that de-extinct life has no place in the modern ecosystem and should not be protected. For example, while Dr. Ian Malcolm does not endorse the hunting down and killing of de-extinct life, he believes that these animals should be allowed to live out their natural lifespan in an isolated environment and ultimately become extinct without leaving any descendants. In his proposed plan, extinction without cruelty would be accomplished and effects on the natural world and human society would be mitigated. However, with the 2018 release of de-extinct animals into the Pacific Northwest, this plan is now impossible, and Dr. Malcolm instead recommends people adjust their lives to a new normal.