The President's Council on Bioethics click here to skip navigation


This staff working paper was discussed at the Council's February 2002 meeting. It was prepared by staff solely to aid discussion, and does not represent the official views of the Council or of the United States Government.

Staff Working Paper

The Ethics of "Reproductive" Cloning:
Child, Family, and Society

At the first Council meeting, the discussion of the ethics of human "reproductive" cloning included the following distinctive strands. Some expressed and defended the moral weightiness of an inarticulate or "instinctive" revulsion at the prospect of making cloned human children. Others, emphasizing the low success rate and abnormalities observed in animal cloning, argued that any attempt at clonal baby-making would be (at least for now) a reckless experiment on the child-to-be, given the current state of scientific knowledge and technical facility. Both of these reactions gave the impression that saying no to human reproductive cloning is somehow obvious, or should be.

Perhaps this is true. But others disagreed. For one thing, people who are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings are concerned not simply or primarily because the procedure is unsafe or might not work; their objection is to the results of a perfected cloning technology, and to a society that permits or embraces the creation of cloned human children. Moreover, the objection based on safety is not really an objection to cloning as such and may in time become a vanishing objection. Furthermore, several Members believed that "moral repugnance" was an unreliable and untrustworthy guide to sound moral conclusions, and that, in any case, it was imperative that we try to articulate reasons or arguments that would justify such strong opposition to cloning. Making use of the staff Working Papers "for" and "against", a few Members endorsed one or another of the moral arguments that have been raised against human cloning, but, because of time constraints, the discussion did not get very far. In returning to this topic at the second Council meeting, we will attempt to advance this exploration.

Council Members are asked to re-read and ponder the arguments developed in Working Papers "for" and "against", distributed for the first meeting. In the service of focusing and sharpening our discussion, the present paper attempts succinctly to order some of these arguments in terms of the cloned child, the cloning family, and the cloning society.

A. The Cloned Child
The first cloned children -- perhaps all cloned children -- would be, so to speak, human experiments. They would be biological experiments -- with grave risks of physical, developmental, and genetic deformity. They would be experiments in human identity -- being the first human beings to inherit an identity already lived in advance by another. They would be experiments in genetic programming and design, being the first children whose entire genetic make-up was known and selected in advance. They would be experiments in family and social life, confusing the relationships within the family and between the generations, for example, by turning "mothers" into "twin sisters" and "grandparents" into "parents."

Experience with animal cloning provides clear evidence to justify concerns about bodily harm to any child resulting from cloning seen as a biological experiment. But imagining and reflecting on the prospect of
being a cloned child leads to concerns about additional harms or injuries to the child related to the other ways in which cloning is an "experiment" on the child-to-be. Some of the leading concerns include:

1. A cloned child is at risk of psychic and social harm. For example:

a. He might experience a confused sense of self and a compromised belief in the openness of his future, knowing that he is in appearance and in genotype identical to another person who has already lived.

b. He might suffer because his "parents" and others will not regard him as they would an ordinary child (a "mysterious stranger," a "surprise to the world"), but will instead constantly compare him to the "original" -- not only to observe how similar he is, but also to wonder why he is not as similar as expected or planned.

c. He may suffer confusion of social identity, being both the twin and offspring of only one biological "parent."

2. A cloned child may be injured (done an injustice), whether he knows it or not and quite apart from any experienced harm, by being treated as a product of parental design, whose "maker" stands above him not as a human equal but as a superior artificer.

We cannot be certain that any cloned child will in fact suffer the predicted psychic or social harms (item 1); knowledge about these matters would be largely empirical and would hence require producing cloned children before we could be certain. (The argument about injustice and equality is not an empirical matter, but a matter of principle.) Yet given the likelihood of such risks and harms, and the question about the "justice" of cloning altogether, the accepted ethical principles governing human experimentation and the protection of human subjects, if fully regarded, might lead one to conclude that the cloning of a human child constitutes an unethical experiment on the child-to-be, even if and when the procedure could be rendered technically safe for use without increased risks of serious bodily harm.

In arguing the ethics of reproductive cloning, we find ourselves in the strange position of "speaking on behalf" of human beings who do not yet exist and who may never exist. But such a paradox is an inevitable part of our embodied existence. One generation always springs from the previous one; and the previous generation, whether it knows it or not, always "speaks on behalf" of the next when it chooses to bring it into existence. In the face of this radical new way of bringing children into the world, we are compelled to think even more deeply and protectively on behalf of our offspring, lest we do them irreparable harm and injury in the very act of giving them life.

B. The Cloning Family and Cloning Society
It is not the children alone who are at risk of harm and injury from the practice of human cloning. The cloners also -- both the parents and the larger society -- may, even if unwittingly, do harm to themselves. Some of the leading concerns include the following:

a. Lacking concern for the physical, social, and psychic harms that might be inflicted on the cloned child, parents or families risk reducing the child to a project, a thing, or, if "it" happens to turn out "badly," something expendable.

b. Parents who engage in human cloning risk undermining the mystery and ultimate independence of a newborn child in favor of their own deliberate control over the child's genetic make-up, and with it, perhaps the dangerous illusion of control over the child's ultimate destiny.

c. Family relations would be confounded and potentially fraught with difficulties, especially in the case of intra-familial cloning. The existence of a child who is a younger look alike -- a genetic "twin" -- of one of the parents is an invitation to all sorts of family tension, both between parents and clone and between the parents themselves.

d. The practice of cloning children -- and perhaps viewing them as experiments or projects -- could have a larger social effect, not just for the children who are cloned but for all of society. It could set a precedent for treating children as "artifacts" to be manipulated, designed, and perfected, not gifts to be cared for, nurtured, and set free.

e. A society that permitted human cloning -- like a society that permitted incest -- would seem to be a different society, even if cloning remained a minority practice. The decision to permit cloning would say something about how society views children; how it views the relationship between the generations; and whether it is willing to defend the interests and dignity of its offspring, even at the cost of limiting the absolute assertion of reproductive rights.

It is true that there might be reasons to pursue the experiment of clonal baby-making, and therefore to disregard the human goods that would potentially be sacrificed in the process. These reasons include: the desire for an individual or couple to have a biologically-related child; the desire of parents to reproduce a genetic match for an existing child in need of transplantation; or the desire of an individual, couple, or society to replicate individuals of superior intelligence, beauty, or ability, whose excellence is presumed to be based on their genetic make-up.

But the quest for "better" children seems to depend in part -- or perhaps entirely -- on reducing children to projects. That is to say, in the hope of making their children "better" human beings, the cloning family or cloning society may undermine the dignity of their children as human beings. They risk regarding children as objects, who exist mainly to satisfy parental wishes and to fulfill parental desires. Moreover, while saying no to human cloning would restrict one particular way of having children, we are compelled to remember that procreation is, by its very nature, a limitation of absolute rights -- since it brings into existence another human being who also has rights and toward whom we have responsibilities; and suggests that human beings, who are capable of bringing others like themselves into the world, do not live for themselves alone.

  - The President's Council on Bioethics -  
Home Site Map Disclaimers Privacy Notice Accessibility NBAC HHS