Cloning? Yuk!

David King


First published in 'Key Issues on Bioethics: A guide for teachers'

[Levinson, R & Reiss, M.J. (Eds.)] Routledge Falmer, London, 2003.




A book entitled 'Key Issues in Bioethics', clearly should address the subject of cloning because cloning provides an exceptionally stark example of the failure of conventional academic bioethics to provide an understanding of the crucial issues, and of what is at stake.  In the face of overwhelming public opposition to cloning, and a set of simple and obvious reasons for not permitting it, the real question is not 'what's wrong with cloning?' but 'what's wrong with bioethics?'

We are faced here with a discourse problem.  For reasons that I will expand on, academic bioethics must eliminate from its discourse any arguments that are concerned with the historical, social and economic trends that lead to the appearance of scientific discoveries and technologies, and which determine their moral and social meaning and impact. Yet it is precisely these social appreciations of the issue which are expressed in the entirely valid popular "yuk !" reaction to cloning.

I will argue that cloning represents a particularly clear example of a long term trend: the denaturing and commodification of human reproduction through its increasing dependence on technology.  This trend not only dehumanises people and ultimately undermines human rights, but is driven by and reinforces ongoing eugenic processes which, if allowed to proceed unchecked, will prove disastrous for society.

There is little that is new in the argument that cloning dehumanises.  This point has been made most convincingly by Leon Kass (Kass, 1997), and much of this article echoes his concerns.  What Kass' analysis lacks, because he is a conservative, is a critical understanding of technology politics, and I will try to remedy this defect here.


The case against cloning

The reason for banning human cloning is that it is an especially blatant example of the trend in Western capitalist societies towards the denaturing and commodification of human reproduction that I have already mentioned.  Allowed to proceed unchecked, this trend will produce a society which most humans alive today would find unliveable.  We are on a slippery slope.  The slope began about 400 years ago, began sloping downwards more steeply about 100 years ago, took a major dive around 40 years ago, and with cloning threatens to become precipitous.  The nature of slippery slopes is that people only notice they are on them and react when there is a change in the gradient.  This is why there is such a fuss about cloning.

The trend I am referring to can be described most simply as the reconfiguring of human reproduction as a capitalist industrial production process.  It is just one example of a broader process which is constitutive of capitalist societies, and is conventionally described as progress: the dismantling of all barriers to the exploitation and control of nature and the reconfiguration of natural processes according to the model of commodity production and trade.  That is why I dated the origins of the cloning crises to the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century and the beginning of modern capitalism.

What makes cloning an especially clear example of the industrialisation of reproduction is, of course, the fact that it can mass-produce genetic uniformity, according to the Fordist model.  Whereas sexual reproduction results in newness, variation, unpredictability and uniqueness, cloning produces sameness, predictability and control.  It is this feature which decisively distinguishes cloning from in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and other technologies that assist sexual reproduction.  The unnaturalness of cloning, its impossibility in the normal course of biological events, and the novel biological, social and ethical consequences of breaking biological rules, mean that it is qualitatively different from IVF, and so should be our reaction to it. 


One biological consequence of this rule-breaking is the high death rate and the 'big offspring phenomenon' observed in cloned animals (McEvoy et al., 2002, Chavatte-Palmer et al., 2000).  This appears to spring directly from the rule that mammals shall have one male parent and one female, and that reproduction shall occur through the union of haploid cells produced by meiosis.  (These problems with human cloning are the main, official, ethical barrier to cloning.)  The rules of mammalian reproduction arise from the integrated character of biological processes, which have been tuned by billions of years of evolution.  Faced with such a clear result of breaking natural laws, it is not surprising that people complain that cloning is unnatural and question scientists' drive to dismantle all natural constraints, whatever the cost.

Kass and others have argued convincingly that the new genetic uniqueness that results from the randomness of sexual reproduction is a crucially important and constitutive aspect of being human.  (It should be noted that monozygotic twins do not refute this principle; they merely provide a minor exception to it - identical twins' genotypes arise randomly, not calculatedly, and are new compared to any previous human genotypes, including their parents.)  The fact that we are new, unknown and different from anyone who has gone before commands respect and equal treatment: it compels others to take us for what we are, and not to imagine they have the measure of us.  This is an important part of the basis of human rights.

A more important aspect of producing humans, rather than conceiving them, is objectification.  Whereas sexual reproduction gives rise to human subjects, cloning produces objects: rather than arising from a random, natural process over which we have no control, clones are the products of human design (more strictly, selection).  This can only put them in a subordinate position relative to their selector/designer, a position that corresponds to that of an object vis a vis a subject.  The selector, who chooses which genome to replicate, assumes total control of another human being's genetic essence.  With cloning, although we do not yet design the genome, as would the genetic engineer, we have a degree of control much greater than is available to a genetic engineer working with sexually-conceived embryos.  Unlike prenatal genetic testing, a form of 'negative control' where we simply choose to consign certain future people to non-existence, cloning is a form of positive control over the entire content of an individual's genome. 

I would argue that this objectification would undermine the clone's ethical status vis a vis all other humans, not just their parent/designer.  Of course, cloned humans should, in theory, be treated as persons, like any other.  But clones will be compromised in that crucial feature of human subjecthood that determines our ethical relationship with them. A human subject is simply unconditionally herself, equal and other to us and belonging only to herself: she must be treated as an equal, with her own interests.  As objects, clones will not belong to themselves.  Perhaps the ethical status of clones would be somewhat more like that of farm animals, whose reproduction is rigorously controlled by their superiors. By imagining how we would react to, say, 50 clones of the same person it is easy to see how the industrial character of their origins would erode the ethical seriousness with which we would relate to them.  I would contend that this is no less the case with a single clone. One might say, following Marx, that if the control by others of one's labour power produces alienation, then how much more so would the control of one's genome and the incorporation of one's genetic being into the production process.

The replacing of natural means of reproduction with technology is also a eugenic trend, for as it becomes more technological, reproduction and its products must conform more and more to industrial/technological criteria of predictability/uniformity, quality control and efficiency.  Although it has often been misunderstood as a right wing phenomenon, eugenics, in its heyday, was supported by many liberals and leftists, who viewed it as modern, humane and progressive.  What united their vision with right-wing authoritarians was a vision of social control through regulation of the unpredictable mess caused by reproduction.  In its essence, eugenics is the capitalist project of control of nature applied to human reproduction (King, 1997), and has always depended for its realisation upon medical and technological intervention in reproduction.  This began with sterilisation, family planning/contraception and abortion and intensified through IVF, prenatal screening, preimplantation genetic diagnosis and now cloning.  The often-predicted goal of this progression is the complete separation of sex from reproduction, and an artificial reproduction with gestation in vitro and genetic engineering. 

The technologisation of reproduction is also necessary for another form of distortion:  commercialisation.  This is already evident in the buying and selling of babies in commercial surrogacy, and the selling of eggs from 'genetically superior' women on the internet.  Several putative cloning companies aim to charge up to $200,000 per cloned baby.  But in cloning the degree of technical intervention involved makes not only the process but also the product, a human embryo, patentable. Several companies have now claimed cloned human embryos as their intellectual property. Human embryos become, literally, commodities to be bought and sold.  One does not have to believe that embryos are persons (I do not), to feel that this degrades the dignity of human life.

In summary, I have argued that cloning is the latest step in the techno-eugenicist, capitalist trend in human reproduction.  Trying to control reproduction to such a degree, according to criteria that are alien to it, can only do violence to its biological and social function - the creation of unique human subjects.  Cloning turns us from unique subjects to be accepted unconditionally into designed, produced and selected objects, to be bought, sold and judged according to eugenic criteria.  Dehumanisation does not seem too strong a word. 

Is it any wonder that people cry out, inarticulately, 'Yuk!' at this distortion of their basic structures of meaning and human values?  Is it any wonder that they decry the unnaturalness of cloning, and deplore those who want to control life in this way, and set themselves up over it, as 'playing God'?  Our bioethicists are by now well-practised in the art of debunking these unphilosophical expressions of outrage, pointing out the many ways in which we already play God, and how our concepts of what is natural are socially constructed.  But what ordinary people see, and our clever experts miss, because they are themselves so deeply a part of the technocratic enterprise, is the degrading overall trend.  And the whole point of that trend is limitless control, and its method is the dismantling and exploitation of the natural.  That trend must be stopped at the point of cloning, for if we fail to control it, its control of us will become unbreakable.  We are at one of those points on the slippery slope where, bioethicists always insist, it will be possible to dig our heels in and say, 'thus far and no further'.  We must do so, and the bioethicists should muck in and help.

Some more detailed arguments

The psychology of clones

In the cloning debate there has been much talk of the psychological problems of clones.  Kass, in time-honoured conservative fashion makes much of the problems caused by subversion of the normal patterns of kinship.  Others have talked about the problems of lack of genetic uniqueness, and being expected to conform to your genetic heritage.  It certainly does not seem implausible that, as with some monozygotic twins, the genetic sameness will be reinforced with an attempt to impose an environment and experiences that reinforce the genetic sameness.  This is especially obvious with the stereotypical egomaniac self-cloner, but is likely to be an unconscious part of the behaviour of all cloning parents, unless they make a positive effort to do otherwise.  A genetic copy of a father is likely to have his genetic predispositions reinforced in the nicest possible way.  All parents do this to some degree, but the tendency seems likely to be considerably more pronounced with clones.  The very fact of objectifying a person in this way, and of placing oneself in the position of designer, will tend to encourage this.  As Kass says, where ordinary parents have hopes, cloners will have expectations.  And knowing that the content of your genome is known and predetermined in advance, that you are in the subordinate position of designed object, is hardly likely to enhance a child's resistance to parental domination - unless it produces extreme rejection of the parent.

While very real, these concerns are hard to evaluate.  Cloning would interfere with fundamental aspects of the human condition: kinship, genetic uniqueness and subjecthood.  Twins often have psychological challenges, but they do not have to cope with the added difficulties of radically disturbed kinship, and being a designed object.  However, human psychology is complex and experience has surely taught that people can make the best of many kinds of bad job.  We cannot predict exactly how the parents of clones will behave.  In my view concerns about psychology are not a decisive objection to human cloning, however, we can surely say that this is a very bad job to have to make the best of.  Cloning is likely to produce alienation in the psychological sense of the word.  British law requires the regulator to consider the welfare of the child in deciding whether to permit the use of IVF - it seems unlikely that cloning would pass this test.

Clones aren't real copies (so there's nothing to worry about)

In the wake of the Dolly furore, many experts were keen to assure us that a clone of Mel Gibson would not be another Mel Gibson.  The clone's pre- and post-natal environment and experiences would produce a different person (Lewontin, 1998).  This is, of course, true, as far as it goes and indeed cloning cannot produce the same uniformity as an industrial production line.  But, as identical twins show us, genes really do matter, which is why would-be cloners are so keen to replicate them.  Few scientists would now support the 'blank slate' model of human beings of the 1950s.

However, the real fallacy in this argument is the same as that involved in the objection that twins are clones and that there is no problem with twins (Bailey, 1998).  The objection is not to sameness per se, but to its attempted imposition by outsiders, especially when this is part of a larger trend of rewriting reproduction according to an industrial script.  Actions are made illegitimate not only by their consequences but by the motivation of the actors and the contexts which frame them.

Reproductive liberty

It is often argued, especially in the USA, that people have a 'right to reproduce in any way they want', which is reinforced by a strong belief that the state has no role to play in personal matters such as reproduction.  There may be a 'negative right' of non-interference in one's right to 'marry and found a family' as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it.  However, that is a very different thing from asserting a positive right of access to any technological means necessary to have a child, simply because one happens to want to use a particular reproductive method, no matter what the consequences for the child or for society.  (I would suggest that the inability to recognise this obvious distinction is due to the pervasive influence of an individualistic consumerist ethic, which insists that we have the right to anything we want and no-one shall be allowed to interfere with our pursuit of our desires.)  The point is that there is no right to have a child if doing so, in any particular way, violates important social goals.  We cannot pretend that reproduction exists in some inviolable bubble immune from normal considerations - it has always been a highly social activity, subject to innumerable social and cultural constraints.

Cloning is inevitable and cannot be banned

In the public discussion on cloning, it is often suggested that there is some inevitability about cloning, and that attempts to ban it are futile.  This is usually based on the idea that 'you can't stop science', or that nations cannot prevent the actions of maverick 'mad scientists'.

Strictly speaking, of course, this is not an argument about whether it is right to try to ban cloning, however it does deserve attention because it is factually incorrect, and has a major impact on the debate.  Science is anything but a juggernaut, proceeding inexorably according to its own internal logic, in a social vacuum.  The agenda of scientific research is driven by many social factors, especially economic competition between nations and companies.  Science with little commercial applicability rarely happens, because it does not get funded.  It is ironic that those who believe that 'you can't stop science' present themselves as wise to the ways of the world, yet understand so little of how science really works.  It is they, not those who believe cloning can be banned, who are the na´ve idealists.

As for the maverick scientist, cloning events may or may not take place before there is a global ban, with severe penalties attached.  In my judgement they will not, because the technical difficulties will delay success until after a ban is passed.  But even if I am wrong, there is a major difference between a world in which an isolated cloning event occurs, and the cloner goes to jail, and one in which cloning becomes an accepted economic activity.  Since I prefer the former scenario I will continue to lobby for a ban.  At present the United Nations has taken up the call, and there is every reason to believe that cloning will be banned worldwide by 2005.  At the national level, in response to a perceived threat, legislation can be passed in days.

It is interesting to ask why people seem so keen to proclaim themselves powerless.  The often-voiced sentiment that 'you can't stop progress' reveals our postmodern ambivalence towards the capitalist technocracy that dominates our lives.  On the one hand, we have stopped believing in anything, especially our own ability to change the world for the better, and we are rightly sceptical about dominant narratives of progress: the fashionable pose is a worldly-wise cynicism.  On the other hand, we cannot altogether give up our belief in progress, and can only hope desperately that more technology will bring something better.  So we accept technologisation uneasily, feeling alternately hopeful and victimised, but always powerless in the face of technocracy. 


Cloning should be allowed for infertility treatment

In most people's eyes, the most serious reason for permitting cloning is for infertility treatment for those who lack sperm or eggs.  It is a measure of how far we have fallen under the spell of the moral blackmail of the infertility industry, that we are prepared to entertain this.  Firstly, why do we no longer question the assumption that people must have children that are 100% genetically related to (in this case only one of) them?  Why can such couples not accept sperm or egg donation or adoption as alternatives?

More importantly, we must resist the moral blackmail.  We must insist that the relief of infertility does not justify crossing a fundamental barrier, which will have drastic consequences for humanity.  Any bioethics worthy of the name must be able to insist that medical advancement does not justify any means.

How many clones are too many?

An argument that has had little airing but in my view is very powerful is to ask the following questions of those who would accept cloning: how many clones of one person should be permitted, and on what basis?  Even the most ardent libertarian advocates of cloning tend to balk at the idea of making 50 or even ten copies of one person, yet on their own arguments there is little justification for such scruples.  As soon as one starts to argue that ten clones are not acceptable, one is forced to accept that there is something inappropriate about creating humans by simple replication and that this might have harmful consequences for society.  But where does one draw the line, and on what basis?  Why would it be acceptable to create two copies, but not three or six?  The only remotely plausible place to draw the line is at one copy of the individual, so that the clone is not too different from ordinary humans.  Yet even this would be vulnerable to the argument that twins and some triplets are clones, so what's the problem in making two or three clones?  Aside from the philosophical difficulties, the supporters of cloning will have to show how, in practical terms, they would prevent multiple cloning once cloning was permitted.  In fact, multiple cloning would be likely to happen immediately, because if IVF practice were followed, as would likely be necessary given the highly inefficient and experimental nature of cloning, at least two or three cloned embryos would need to be implanted. 

What's wrong with bioethics?

Although a few bioethicists have taken strong positions opposed to cloning, the majority of Anglo-American bioethicists including the US National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC, 1997) have been unable to see strong reasons for not permitting cloning, beyond safety concerns which are expected to be temporary.  I would suggest this failure reveals something significant about bioethics itself.

The main failing of contemporary Anglo-American bioethics is its apparent treatment of issues in a social vacuum.  I have been unable to find any discussion of cloning that sets it in the proper social and historical context.  Conventional academic bioethics also appears to have a rule that arguments about societal concerns can barely be mentioned, and can certainly never override its key concern for individual autonomy.  The excessive stress on autonomy (especially in the USA) and the exclusion of consideration of social impact give us a clue that academic bioethics is far from attaining the 'apolitical neutrality' it claims.  In fact, what we are dealing with in bioethical debates are discussions between different strands of liberalism.  Amongst political ideologies, liberalism has always succeeded best in portraying itself as 'simple common sense', and as not reflecting any particular set of social interest groups.

What is interesting is the way that bioethics' stance of political neutrality, and its exclusion of social analysis, exactly parallels the liberal ideology of science itself, whereby science is supposedly objective, neutral and divorced from social and political influences.  This self-image is vital in allowing scientists not to notice the ways in which science serves the interests of capitalism, in a hundred subtle and less subtle ways.  It would appear that the same trick of self-deception works even in discussions, which, unlike science, are supposed to be about values.

I would argue that the reason that official bioethics fails to interrogate the long-term techno-historical trend (or slippery slope) is precisely because of its role within that trend.  It has succeeded in constructing a liberal discourse that excludes issues of social power and how it is exercised, for example through control of technological agendas.  But by failing to fundamentally critique biomedical definitions of progress, it has become slave to the biomedical paradigm.  The traditional critique of liberalism is as true of bioethics: those who fail to critique power end up serving it.

This does not mean that bioethicists slavishly follow a party line dictated to them by scientists, or that all bioethicists are simple spin doctors for biomedical technology and the vested interests behind it.  Bioethics has space for the most earnest and well-meaning liberals, who take ethics just as seriously as they should be.  In fact, debate is encouraged, and the fact that it takes place, albeit on an 'expert level' supposedly beyond the understanding of the public, is always given as the main reason that the public should be reassured: 'Don't worry, we've set up an ethics committee and our experts are looking into it'.  Of course, as is often remarked, such committees substitute for real public debate.  But the key point is that these expert discussions are always subject to the structural constraints of the bioethics discourse.  The exclusion of issues of power and social control means that, at least in Britain and the US, bioethics has achieved the status of neutral arbiter and protector of values.  Bioethicists, but never critical sociologists, are allowed to advise government.

However, the problem with the discourse and role chosen for bioethics, as many commentators have noted, is its inability to ever say no, on the basis of firm values.  With cloning, as with successive developments on the biomedical slippery slope, it is always impossible to find consensus against the latest step in eugenic commodification.  As Kass notes, although we are always reassured that each step is acceptable, because we will be able to say no to something worse further along, when that thing arrives we are shamelessly told that we have already accepted, for example IVF, so how can we object to cloning?  Within the unquestioned ideology of progress, resistance is ascribed to inconsistent irrationality and a fear of the new, which will doubtless fade away in time. 

In 'The Communist Manifesto', Marx remarks that the experience of life in a capitalist society is that 'everything solid melts into air'.  This does not 'just happen' by itself - there is a well paid and intelligent group of people whose job is to make sure that it happens.  It is ironic in the extreme that this same group of poachers has taken upon itself the role of gamekeeper and has succeeded in convincing us that the problem is 'Science running out of control, while ethics strives to put on the brake'. 

Nowadays, the solution to every problem is to set up an ethics committee, but somehow no-one ever notices how little braking power these committees seem to possess.  We can, with justification, ask them the following question: if they cannot bring themselves to say no to cloning, what will they ever say no to?

Please note: the views expressed in this article are Dr King's personal opinions, and do not represent the policy of Human Genetics Alert.



Bailey, R. (1998) The twin paradox: what exactly is wrong with cloning?, in: McGee, G. (Ed.) The Human Cloning Debate (Berkeley, Berkeley Hill Books).

Chavatte-Palmer P, Heyman Y, Renard JP, (2000) Cloning and associated physiopathology of gestation Gynecology Obstetrics and  Fertility 28 pp633-642.

Kass, L. (1997) The wisdom of repugnance, The New Republic, June 2, pp 17-26.

King, D. (1997) Eugenic tendencies in modern genetics, in: Sutton, A. (Ed) Man Made Man (Dublin, Four Courts Press).

Lewontin, R. (1998) The confusion over cloning, in: McGee, G. (Ed.) The Human Cloning Debate (Berkeley, Berkeley Hill Books).

NBAC (1997) Cloning Human Beings (Rockville, Maryland).

McEvoy, T.G., Sinclair, K.D., Young, L.E., Wilmut, I., Robinson, J.J.  (2002) Large offspring syndrome and other consequences of ruminant embryo culture in vitro: relevance to blastocyst culture in human ART.  Human Fertility 3 pp238-246.


Further Reading

Andrews, L.B. (1999) The clone Age: adventures in the new world of reproductive technology (New York, Henry Holt).

Buchanan, A., Brock, D.W., Daniels, N. and Wikler, D. (2000) From chance to choice: genetics and justice (New York, Cambridge University Press).

Appleyard, B (1998) Brave new worlds: staying human in the genetic future (New York, Viking).

Kolata, G. (1998) Clone: the road to Dolly and the path ahead (New York, Morrow and Co.)

Maranto, G. (1996) Quest for perfection: the drive to breed better human beings (New York Scribner).

Nussbaum, M.C. and Sunstein C.R. eds (1998) Clones and clones: facts and fantasies about human cloning (New York, Norton 1998)

Pence, G. ed. (1998) Flesh of My Flesh : The ethics of  cloning humans : a reader (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham MD).


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