April 3, 2001 -- Last week, Congress began holding hearings on human cloning. Given the highly charged debate that human cloning is likely to spark, these public hearings should be a good thing. The result of the hearings, however, could likely be a very bad thing.
The calls for regulation and legislation that are certain to result would be grossly counter-productive.
Like most breakthrough medical technologies, cloning is inherently risky. The technology is currently in its infancy; the success rate is very low; the frequency of genetic abnormalities in clones is alarmingly high, and clone lifespans tend to be significantly shorter than their genetic forebears. But the risks associated with cloning will decline as procedures are refined and the science better understood. While the current level of risk certainly should prohibit any responsible researcher from engaging in immediate human experimentation, the proper response to the risk of a developing medical technology should not be an outright ban. Existing safeguards covering medical experimentation are sufficient to quell any objections related to the current level of risk. An outright ban would only serve to delay the time when the technology can become safe and effective.
Safe and effective cloning, however, might still be an unsatisfactory outcome for Congress. The vision of a brave new world where wealthy elites have access to expensive genetic technologies and the poorer classes do not has provided much moral ammunition for those who oppose human cloning. But castes can only be maintained if the benefits to which the wealthy aspire are forcibly withheld from the poor. A national ban on cloning would have exactly this effect; the wealthy would be able to afford overseas treatment while the poor would be effectively denied access to the same treatment.
Cloning (and genetic manipulation, should such a technology ever prove viable), like any developing technology, is initially expensive. But as the science progresses, costs will steadily decrease—unless government regulations keep the costs artificially high. If Congress does ban human cloning, the prohibition would simply raise the cost of utilizing the technology, increase the overall risk, and move the genetic market underground. Like the failed experiment with Prohibition in the twenties and thirties, the consequences of criminalizing cloning would only serve to exacerbate the problems that the ban was intended to solve.
If Congress is seeking to avoid fulfilling Aldus Huxley’s dystopian vision, then it should just leave well enough alone. Government interference in this realm will have drastic consequences—whether a ban helps create a genetic caste system, or whether regulations will delay the availability of medical technologies that cloning and genetic research are bound to bring.
Cloning, like all technology, simply extends Man’s range of choices. And it is the extension of choice and the pursuit of knowledge that offer Man the opportunity to expand the boundaries of his existence. In the end, Man’s spirit, that within him which searches for truth and morality, that part of his mind that aspires and dreams—his soul—is ultimately the product of his own design. This essential spirit of humanity is the greatest weapon we have to fight dystopia. It would be dangerously wrong for Congress to ban human cloning. We cannot hope to escape the demons of technology by muzzling our minds.