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Primer on Ethics and Human Cloning

Glenn McGee


Before cloning is considered permissible medicine for human infertility, society needs to resolve many questions, including:

  • Is cloning unnatural self-engineering?
  • Will failures, such as deformed offspring, be acceptable?
  • Will cloning lead to designer babies who are denied an open future?
  • Who is socially responsible for cloned humans?
  • Do clones have rights and legal protection?

February 2001

Human somatic cell nuclear transfer, otherwise known (somewhat inaccurately) as creating an embryo by “cloning,” involves1:


What rights would a child born as a genetic copy of another have? Source: Microsoft Images.

A clone’s DNA is exactly the same as that of the original organism.
  • The starvation and subsequent implantation of DNA from specialized, non-sexual cells of one organism (e.g., cells specialized to make that organism’s hair or milk) into an egg whose DNA nucleus has been removed.
  • The resulting egg and nucleus are shocked or chemically treated so that the egg begins to behave as though fertilization has occurred, resulting in the beginning of embryonic development of a second organism containing the entire genetic code of the first organism.
Human cloning: the most controversial debate of the decade.

Mammalian cloning, through this nuclear transfer process, has resulted in the birth of hundreds of organisms to date. However, significantly more nuclear transfer generated embryos fail during pregnancy than would fail in sexual reproduction, and a substantial majority of cloned animals who have survived to birth have had some significant birth defect.

Reproduction, or perhaps more accurately, replication of an organism’s DNA identity does not normally occur in mammals, with the exception of twinning, which always results in the simultaneous birth of siblings. Only plants reproduce through replication from one generation to another. The prospect of such replication for humans has resulted in the most controversial debate about reproduction ever to be taken up in western civilization.

Cloning Issues

It’s an answer to infertility, claim supporters.

In addition to the obvious risks to the first child, noted below, those who oppose human cloning point to the repugnance of a style of reproduction with such profound potential for vanity, arguing that the freedom of children and nature of the family are in danger.

Proponents of cloning suggested it might serve as a new, unusual but perhaps efficacious treatment for infertility, enabling those unable to pass genes to future generations to do so in a way that is at least analogous to the familial linkage of twins.

Failure, miscarriage, or deformed offspring likely in early experiments.
Some defects may not be revealed until a clone is mature.

Perhaps the most urgent ethical, legal and social issues about cloning arise in the context and process that may lead to the birth of a first human clone. This is so because, as has been pointed out by scholars and politicians, early human experiments are likely to result in a number of clinical failures and lead to miscarriage, the necessity of dozens or even hundreds of abortions, or births of massively deformed offspring. Recent study of mammalian cloning also suggests that a number of defects often created in the reprogramming of the egg do not manifest themselves until later in the life of the resulting clone, so that mature clones have often undergone spectacular, unforeseen deaths.2

The dangers for early prospective clones are controversial and difficult to manage because

  • in part, one is attempting to protect a future potential person against harms that might be inflicted by their very existence, and
  • in part because societies around the world have indicated that they believe that the early cloning experiments will breach a natural barrier that is moral in character, taking humans into a realm of self-engineering that vastly exceeds any prior experiments with new reproductive technology.
Can the law prevent the birth of a clone when it’s our right to have children?

Laws that would prevent the birth of a first clone are difficult because they traverse complex jurisprudential ground: protecting an as-yet nonexistent life against reproductive dangers, in a western world that, in statutory and case law at least, favors reproductive autonomy.3,4

But the dangers for the first clone pale in comparison to the ethical issues that will arise should cloning succeed in producing a healthy child, and become part of the repertoire of new reproductive technologies presently offered to those with sufficient funds.

Is a cloned embryo the same as a conceived embryo?
  • The creation of Dolly the sheep at Roslyn, Scotland labs of biotechnology company PPL Therapeutics (and not-for-profit Roslyn Institute) did not involve any of the hallmarks of what is known socially, religiously, and scientifically, as conception: the fusion of egg and sperm and the adhesion of the thus fertilized egg to the wall of the uterus.5
  • The genetic and cellular material that led to Dolly indeed might not even qualify in traditional terms as an embryo, in that mammalian embryos are scientifically defined in part by how they come into being. It is quite difficult to divine “what is in the dish” where a “clone” is being created, a problem that plagues all those who would define and regulate the creation and research on embryonic progenitors of a clone.

By analogy, many have speculated as to whether

Does a clone have parents, autonomy, or even a soul?
  • a human clone lacks traits necessary for true independence from “parent” progenitors
  • whether a clone is entitled by contrast to feel that a progenitor (genetically its monozygotic twin) is an appropriate parent
  • and many in the general public in western nations identified the most important problem of cloning as whether a clone would have a soul.

How a clone is to be defined, or rather how difficult is the task of finding a way of understanding human cloning in terms from traditional language and contemporary institutions of science and parenting, has proven to be a most formidable challenge.

What is parenthood or society in a world that includes clones?

In moral terms, the questions to be asked about cloning, were it shown to be safe and effective, are:

  • Whether and how does cloning relate to other kinds of families?
  • What sorts of boundaries of parenthood and social responsibility are challenged by cloning?
Can cloned children choose their own destiny?

Legal scholars have argued that cloning may violate, for example, a child’s “right to an open future.” A child born as a genetic copy of another may feel undue pressure to become like or different from its progenitor. Yet a right to an open future is difficult to validate by common law or analogy to ethical analysis about parenthood. What is parenthood, after all, but the teaching of values and knowledge to children in an act of stewardship? Perhaps children do not ever have fully open futures. Failing an absolute standard, society will have to find ways to reconcile differences among the many kinds and degrees of parental control and enhancement of children. While it is tempting to describe cloning as either a radical new form of parenting or as twinning, either analysis fails to take account of the need for new ways to integrate the problem of cloning into social institutions before it becomes an accepted form of reproductive medicine.

If humans “make” babies rather than “have” babies, are they playing God?


Cloning offers remarkable insight into the power of creation that humanity has taken into its fold. One theological analysis holds that humans are co-creators with God; perhaps it is more accurate to say that humans are moving ever closer to a posture of making babies, rather than having babies. Cloning represents a remarkable test of human restraint, wisdom and institutional development, one that will in many ways identify the moral features of 21st century biotechnology.

Glenn McGee, Ph.D. is Associate Director for Education, Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Center for Bioethics, as well as Assistant Professor of Bioethics in the departments of Philosophy, History and Sociology of Science, Cellular and Molecular Engineering, and Nursing. He is also Editor-in-Chief, American Journal of Bioethics; Senior Series Editor, Bioethics (The MIT Press); and Director of web site. He also serves on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Molecular and Clinical Genetic Devices Panel. His books include The Perfect Baby and The Human Cloning Debate.

Primer on Ethics and Human Cloning

Bioethics Issues, produced by the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, is the Internet’s first and “most read source of information about bioethics.” The second link takes you to their Cloning and Genetics section containing information about the debate and policy issues.

“Does Genetic Research Threaten Our Civil Liberties?”

Article by Philip Bereano on this site examines possible ethical and social impacts of new science technologies.

“Stem Cells for Cell-Based Therapies”

Article by Lauren Pecorino on this site about medical uses of stem cells, which can also be a factor in human cloning.

Human cloning and genetic modification

Easy-to-read explanation, with numerous graphic illustrations, about the difference between reproductive & therapeutic cloning, as well as info on human genetic engineering & techniques.

How to Clone a Human

A one-page recipe for cloning a human, from BioFact Report.

Reasons to clone humans

Human Cloning Foundation, an organization that supports human cloning, lists the benefits of cloning humans.

Reproductive cloning pros and cons

The Center for Genetics and Society is a nonprofit information and public affairs organization working to encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of the new human genetic and reproductive technologies. Here, they present a list of pros and cons:

“Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry”

The President’s Council on Bioethics (USA) summarizes arguments for and against human cloning in this 2002 report.

U.S. survey on reproductive technology

A detailed U.S. survey, conducted by the Genetics & Public Policy Center of Johns Hopkins University, reveals fears and hopes about reproductive genetic technology (Dec. 2002).

FAQ about human cloning

Responses to frequently-asked questions about human cloning from the Singapore Government’s Bioethics Advisory Committee. Under Information heading, select FAQ’s, then cloning.

“New Study Shows Normal-Looking Clones May Be Abnormal”

Scientists have found the first evidence to show that even seemingly normal-looking clones may harbor serious abnormalities affecting gene expression that may not manifest itself until later in life (a summary of 7/01 study published in Science).

Interview with Advanced Cell Technology (ACT)

A journalist at The Atlantic interviews ACT, a U.S. company pursuing therapeutic cloning (5/02).

Read a Book

  • » The Perfect Baby: Parenthood in the New World of Cloning and Genetics by Glenn McGee (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) discusses ethical issues surrounding the medical use of genetic technologies.
  • » Human Cloning: Economics and Ethics is a “comprehensive report that analyzes every aspect of human cloning — legal, ethical and technological” (RocSearch Ltd., 7/03). For a complete index of this report and how to order:

Do No Harm campaigns

Organized by The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, “a national coalition of researchers, health care professionals, bioethicists, legal professionals, and others dedicated to the promotion of scientific research and health care which does no harm to human life.”

Medical Educators’ and Scientists Position

The American Society of Gene Therapy’s wants to keep cloning research legal in the U.S.


Teaching Resources from the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR)

The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR) strengthens public trust in research through education and dialogue. Its diverse membership spans academic, industry, non-profit research institutes, health care, and voluntary health organizations. Through membership and extensive education programs, it fosters a shared commitment to the ethical conduct of research and ensures the vitality of the life sciences community.

Ethics Primer
The Ethics Primer provides engaging, interactive, and classroom-friendly lesson ideas for integrating ethical issues into a science classroom. It also provides basic background on ethics as a discipline, with straightforward descriptions of major ethical theories. Several decision-making frameworks are included to help students apply reasoned analysis to ethical issues.
Bioethics 101
Bioethics 101 provides a systematic, five-lesson introductory course to support educators in incorporating bioethics into the classroom through the use of sequential, day-to-day lesson plans. This curriculum is designed to help science teachers in guiding their students to analyze issues using scientific facts, ethical principles, and reasoned judgment.
Stem Cell Research
This unit, which was designed by teachers in conjunction with scientists, ethicists, and curriculum developers, explores the scientific and ethical issues involved in stem cell research. While exploring the ethics of stem cell research, students will develop an awareness of the many shades of gray that exist among positions of stakeholders in the debate. original lesson

This lesson has been written by a science educator to specifically accompany the above article. It includes article content and extension questions, as well as activity handouts for different grade levels.

Lesson Title: Human Cloning: Is it Biological Plagiarism?
Levels: high school - undergraduate
Summary:In this lesson, students apply scientific principles to personal and social views on human cloning. Students can serve on mock governmental advisory committees, conduct cloning debates, research human cloning regulations … and more! (Note: included are web site evaluation worksheets that are useful for student Internet searches on any topic.)

Download/view lesson.
(To open the lesson’s PDF file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader free software.)

Lessons for middle school

The following links will take you to middle school lessons available on other web sites:

Useful links for student research

In addition to the links in the “learn more” section above:

  1. Stanford University’s Human Cloning site provides an overview of three cloning methods. Accessed 2/01.
  2. Author’s updated reference: Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research press release of 5 July 2001 “New study shows normal-looking clones may be abnormal.” Accessed 1/02.
  3. San Bernardino County Medical Society published its meeting’s panel discussion on “Ethical Issues in Human Cloning” in its Nov./Dec. 1999 bulletin. Accessed 2/01.
  4. Author’s updated reference: Ciballi, J.B., R.P. Lanza, and M.D. West. 2001. “The First Human Cloned Embryo.” Scientific American, Nov. 24 issue. Accessed 1/02; no longer available online.
  5. Roslin Institute Online, “Information on cloning and nuclear transfer.” Accessed 2/01; no longer available online.


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