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July 11, 2011 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

Human cloning has long been demonized in popular culture. In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World cloning is the technological foundation supporting a highly repressive dystopia. In the Star Wars saga, clones are mass produced to become cannon fodder in the armies of the Galactic Republic. In cinema and literature, with few exceptions, clones are represented as mindless drones who serve their masters without question for good or evil. Cloning could also cause a great deal of damage for living, breathing human beings. From an individual perspective and from the broader perspective of society, the availability of cloning could lead to violations of the bioethical principle of nonmaleficence.

Cloning would make it possible for interested parties to have children for purely self-centered reasons. Parents might desire a child with extraordinary athletic skills or genius-level intelligence. Other parents might want to have a child who has the talent to win American Idol or the physical beauty to become America’s Next Top Model. There are probably many misguided parents might believe that by cloning a champion triathlete, their child could grow up to become the winner of Survivor.

In all these scenarios the cloned child is brought into the world to fill a need in her parents’ lives — not a need based on love, but rather a need based on the desire for money, fame, or both. The cloned child’s choices are constrained by her parents’ goals and she is not free to develop interests of her own. Her autonomy is restricted, her own personal goods are not considered, and she is harmed deeply. For her the lifelong results of cloning are hurtful and deleterious, and nonmaleficence is violated. To the extent that clones do not grow up to be useful, contributing members of society, owing to the significant psychosocial harms inflicted upon them by their parents, society also experiences these harms.

Cloning has substantial potential for harming society via alterations to the human genome and human physiology. The genome of a clone is the product of asexual reproduction. The 46 chromosomes of the clone genome did not undergo the normal series of biochemical processes that are part of normal sexual reproduction. For example, epigenetic reprogramming, normally performed by the egg cytoplasm on the 23 chromosomes derived from the sperm, is speeded up in the cloning process and initiated by external processes rather than processes internal to the egg. The effects on the clone genome are at present completely unknown. Any alterations, mutations, or deviations from normal would be permanently embedded in the clone’s genome and would be inherited by the clone’s children. Thus, cloning could introduce harmful changes to the human genome, seriously violating the principle of nonmaleficence.

From the perspective of genetics and physiology, cloning is a broad-scale experiment performed on the human genome. There are many benefits but the harms may be too great.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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