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July 7, 2011 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley in 1818, is as compelling and thought-provoking in 2011 as when the novel appeared almost 200 years ago. Shelley subtitled her opus The Modern Prometheus. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, although certainly no god, was a brilliant scientist who paid bitterly for the fruits of his genius. His loved ones were tragically murdered by his inhuman creation and he was doomed to suffer relentlessly for his deeds, as was Prometheus.

The Titan Prometheus believed he was helping mankind by giving them the gift of fire. Frankenstein believed he was furthering the cause of science by creating a living being from dead flesh. Prometheus and Frankenstein shared the classical tragic flaw of hubris. Hubris is the arrogance that leads one to overestimate one’s abilities and importance and take actions that likely result in great harms. In Greek literature a person’s hubris usually helped cause his destruction.

Dr. Frankenstein successfully created new life. The monster was a genius, but his physical qualities were abhorrent to others and he was shunned. The being recognized his unfortunate uniqueness and was greatly pained by his enforced solitude. He wreaked terrible vengeance upon Frankenstein for the perceived crime of bringing the creature into the world.

One possible conclusion from Shelley’s cautionary tale is that science should never proceed unchecked. Science always needs to be constrained by moral principles and its activities need to be referenced against potential harms. Frankenstein’s hubris blinded him to the likely untoward outcomes of his research. He was only focused on the task he had set himself. He gave no thought to what such a creature would think or how it would act. He certainly never considered potential consequences to others that would flow from the existence of such a creation.

Opponents of reproductive cloning often draw unflattering parallels to the story of Frankenstein and his monster. There are some things scientists should never consider and some actions scientists should never take, they say. It is suggested that creating life — which is exactly what reproductive cloning would be, if successful — is the ultimate act of hubris. Frankenstein provides fictional evidence of this. Dr. Frankenstein took it upon himself to create life, and his family and friends paid the terrible cost of his actions in the loss of their own lives.

Those opposed to reproductive cloning suggest that creating life should not be undertaken by scientists. But this is not a consistent position. Many of these persons do not also oppose in vitro fertilization or other assisted reproductive technologies. All fertilizations which occur in laboratories — using instruments, petri dishes, and refrigerators — are examples of scientists creating life. It is not at all clear why one form of creation is acceptable and even sought after in certain circumstances while another is deemed reprehensible and a crime against nature.

The possibility of creating life is not the only major issue in reproductive cloning. But as individual members of society, we all need to guard against hubris and its consequences.

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.

2 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy, Philosophy, Reproductive Medicine, Stem Cell Research

Comments

Ricki Lewis

Ricki Lewis wrote on 07/08/11 9:43 AM

Agreed, David! The hubris of reproductive cloning is especially disturbing when one considers overpopulation and the many children who need parents.
David

David wrote on 07/11/11 7:14 PM

Exactly. As global population continues its inexorable march toward 9+ billion persons, is it at all reasonable to consider a technology that would further increase the total? And of course there is no shortage of already-human children hopeful of finding a family of their own.

An open question is under what circumstances might human cloning be considered ethical and moral?

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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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