Thus does cloning make cowards of us all

Sometimes our scruples are mere squeamishness, says Theodore Dalrymple
Click to follow
The Independent Online
NEW TECHNOLOGY always gives rise to anxiety. Indeed, there is something almost pleasurable about predicting the catastrophes ahead, both moral and physical, in which it will result. Thus there was much happy indignation last week when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission recommended cloning techniques based on embryo research to seek new treatment into diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. The fact that the HFEA and HGAC specifically ruled out the cloning of human beings did nothing to allay the fears of many ordinary people. Why should it? Experience would suggest that if human beings can be cloned, one day they will be cloned - whatever ethicists may decide.

About twenty years ago I did some research in the archives of the small hospital in which I was then working. In the 1850s the hospital had been in desperate need of cash (as it had remained ever since). The administrators proposed to sell off some land to a railway company, but the doctors feared that the noise of the trains going by would kill the patients, "especially the brain cases". They were overruled by the administrators, however, and the track was laid. On the day of the first train, the doctors anxiously watched it rumble by, and then ran to check that their patients in the hospital were unhurt. Even "the brain cases" survived.

In the light of experience, the doctors' fears now seem ridiculous, but they couldn't have been known in advance to be ridiculous. Will our fears about cloning appear in the same light to our descendants?

I confess to a kind of visceral distaste for genetic engineering, particularly cloning. My distaste is surely shared by much of the population. The fact is, however, that most of the arguments are on the other side. It is the emotions that are against cloning. But whether we should listen to the arguments or to our emotions is not entirely clear: for both carried to their logical conclusion can lead us astray.

When human cloning is discussed, the possibility of reproducing an exact genetic replica of Hitler is almost always raised by those who feel the same inchoate unease as I. But, of course, an exact genetic replica of Hitler would not be Hitler. In today's climate, he would probably be a graphic designer, whose most radical political idea would be the harmonisation of European taxes. To suppose that a cloned Hitler would be Hitler is to espouse complete genetic determinism: we are our genes and nothing else. If that were so, there could be no morality, and hence no moral objection to anything, including the cloning of Hitler. Our fears in this regard thus derive more from science fiction, or at least from Brave New World and The Boys from Brazil, than from the actual powers of science.

The imminent use of human embryos for cloning - not of individuals but of tissues - has also caused shivers of apprehension and revulsion. This is odd, or at least not fully consistent. A public that expresses little concern over the destruction year after year of 150,000 embryos and foetuses by means of deliberate abortion (often for trivial reasons such as the inconvenience of being pregnant while on holiday) has suddenly turned squeamish about the use by scientists of the cell lines of embryos at an early stage of their development. Abortion is permitted (and deemed morally permissible) because the embryo or foetus is thought not yet to have those qualities of a human being that entitle its life, as of right, to the protection of the law. And if the embryo or foetus is not sufficiently human to be entitled to such protection, it is difficult to see why any part of it should be thus protected by law. If you can kill a foetus because it is a non-person, why can you not use its cells for experimentation?

The philosopher, religious or otherwise, who objects to abortion on the grounds that it entails the destruction of human life thus has a right consistently to object to the cloning of human tissues derived from embryos or foetuses, which the person who believes in the right of women to abortion on demand (the de facto situation that exists now) does not. Yet the very possibility of cloning an entire individual from a somatic cell - a technical feat which, after Dolly, is surely destined to become more and more commonplace - introduces quite new arguments.

Not all those who oppose abortion do so on the grounds that the embryo or foetus is actually a person, but because it has the potentiality to become one. Now, however, with an increasing ability to clone, many cells will have the potentiality under the right conditions to become persons; it will therefore be wrong, according to the potentiality argument, to destroy any human tissue whatever. The surgeon who performs a mastectomy will be as much of an abortionist as the abortionist himself.

It will be objected that cloning is unnatural: that only under highly unnatural conditions might a somatic cell develop into a fully formed human being. But the distinction between what is natural and unnatural is a difficult one to make. The anti-abortionist would not normally object, for example, to the use of unnatural drugs to aid a subfertile woman to become pregnant in the first place, or to the use of unnatural technology to ensure safe delivery. In a state of nature - or a state that more approximates it than that of mankind in late-industrial society - there would be many more stillbirths and more maternal deaths, but no one suggests a return to such a state on the grounds that it is more natural.

Moreover, the squeamishness of the public (or is it a guilty conscience?) is likely to decline markedly in proportion to the likelihood that it will benefit medically from the results of research into cloning. The man with Parkinson's disease is unlikely to object very strenuously that the curative tissue implanted into his brain is derived from the cloning of embryonic or foetal cells. As the number of conditions curable by cloning techniques grows, so will public unease decline. Needless to say, this is not a highly principled moral stance.

To permit the cloning of embryonic or foetal tissue is feared to be the first step on a slippery slope to a hi-tech dystopia. But only some slippery slopes are actually slid down. The tolerance of euthanasia in the Netherlands was not supposed to lead to doctors deciding that their patients would be better off dead, but that, too, has happened. On the other hand, spare- part surgery has not led to an outbreak of body-snatching or outright murder - at least in this country.

This is surely not the first time in history that man has come to fear his own Promethean conduct. He marvels at his own intellectual brilliance but laments his continued propensity to moral turpitude, and fears that a combination of the two will result in the worst of all possible worlds. Prometheus, you recall, stole fire from heaven for the use of the human beings he had fashioned from clay, and as a result was tied to a rock by the angry Zeus, where his liver was continually pecked out by an eagle. These days, of course, he would have little to fear: his liver would regenerate not naturally, as in the myth, but by liver transplant. Using cloned tissue, of course.