by Barbara MacKinnon (editor)
University of Illinois Press, 2000
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001
In 1997, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission called for
a five-year moratorium on human cloning. At the end of that period,
the issue was to be reviewed, in the light of scientific advances
and of public discussion of its feasibility and morality. This
book is a collection of papers presented at a conference held
at the University of San Francisco, in response to the NBAC's
call for discussion. It brings together philosophers, scientists,
and other academics with an interest in bioethics and public policy.
The book is divided into three sections, corresponding to its
tripartite sub-title. The first section, science, consists of
contributions by George Seidel and Richard Lewontin, both of whom
make the same fundamental point: cloning does not reproduce identical
individuals, not even physically identical individuals.
Each clone will have different mitochondrial DNA, which is probably
responsible for some conformational differences between individuals.
Moreover, even if we were able to produce clones with identical
mitochondrial DNA, they would still not be physically identical.
There would still be epigenetic differences between them:
differences which arise as a result of the randomness that effects
some biological processes. Hair color is Seidel's most striking
example. Hair is dependent upon the "invasion" of follicles
by melanin, a process which occurs during embryonic development.
The pattern of this invasion depends somewhat on chance; thus
genetically identical individuals will have somewhat different
Richard Lewontin's contribution focuses especially on the notion
that there is such a thing as the best genes. By examining
the performance of genetically identical plants in different environments,
he shows that we can speak correctly only of the best genes for
a particular environment. One plant might flourish
at a certain altitude, while another languishes. In a different
environment, it might be the first which languishes, while the
supposedly inferior plant now thrives. There just is no such thing
as the best genes overall. Add to this the fact that genes do
not determine the resulting individuals to anything like the extent
usually held, Lewontin believes, and the motivation for cloning
And indeed, many of the ethical arguments, both for and
against cloning that have been advanced in recent years are shown
to have little force once the science is understood. Fortunately,
most of the contributors to the 'ethics' section of the book have
a sufficient grasp of the science to avoid the wilder claims which
are sometimes thrown about. Unfortunately, all the arguments canvassed
have already been adequately discussed elsewhere-in the essays
collected in Gregory Pence's Flesh of My Flesh: The Ethics of Human Cloning,
for instance (which shares several contributors with this volume).
Perhaps this is a function of the three year delay between the
holding of the conference and the book's publication.
Nevertheless, for the newcomer to the debate, the contributions
are helpful. Especially useful is Bonnie Steinbocks' lightning
tour of the main arguments against cloning. Philip Kitcher examines
scenarios under which human cloning-once it has been shown to
be reasonably safe-might be permissible, while Jorge Garcia puts
forward arguments against cloning he considers conclusive. This
last contribution is in many ways the most interesting, because
it is so combative, but it is also somewhat sloppy. Garcia quotes
his opponents out of context, fails to consider obvious replies
to his line of argument and simply fails to provide any evidence
for some of his central contentions. The anti-cloning case has
been argued more convincingly by Leon Kass, in his contribution
to the Pence collection mentioned above.
The final section of the book is concerned with public policy.
It includes a contribution from R. Alta Charo, a member of the
NBAC, on the reasoning the Commission used in recommending a moratorium.
In the end, the NBAC found only one anti-cloning argument persuasive:
that cloning was unsafe for the cloned child. The fact that no
other anti-cloning argument convinced the commission explains
its opting of a moratorium, rather than a permanent ban. We can
expect the technology to improve, to the extent that risks of
harm should fall to a level comparable with those attached to
other assisted reproduction technologies.
Andrea Bonnicksen provides an illuminating sketch of the public
policy context. As she points out, public resistance to cloning
is likely to gradually dissipate as the science advances. She
believes that in an environment characterized by such incrementalism,
the best response is to adopt a policy, not a law. This would
allow stake-holders to set voluntary guidelines for the technology,
without preventing the development of new and potentially beneficial
advances. We do not need a law against human cloning, she argues,
because it is not imminent. Unfortunately, Bonnicksen seems to
have been overtaken by events on this score. Attempts by groups
both inside and outside the United States to clone a human being
are now well advanced, according to recent news reports. John
Robertson examines the policy challenges which will confront us
once human cloning is safe and effective. He explores issues of
family relationships and the strains these might come under once
we have the possibility of bearing a child that is genetically
identical to our parents, or to a deceased spouse. As Robertson
concludes, cloning will force us to confront the genetic meaning
The collection concludes with the reflections of Susanne Hunter,
who argues that we ought not to ban the technique of cloning-nor
indeed any other medical technique-but instead focus on the outcomes
we wish to avoid. Banning human cloning would prevent the development
of potentially beneficial advances in human medicine, she argues.
Hunter is an advocate of a free-market, who worries that excessive
regulation will distort the market by raising entry costs to it.
Strangely, she is unconcerned that massive government funding
of medical research will be equally distorting.
All in all, this collection is a useful introduction to the cloning
debate. It is distinguished from its competitors on the market-of
which there are several-mainly by its valuable contributions on
the science of cloning. Like its competitors, however, it fails
to confront the central issue, the question that usually motivates
the desire to clone at all. Why think it is important to have
children who are biologically related to one? What is so important
about a genetic connection to one's children? Until this question
is answered, we will be unable adequately to answer the question
whether cloning should be made available to those who are unable
to reproduce in any other way.
© 2001 Neil Levy
Dr Neil Levy is a fellow
of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at
Charles Sturt University,
Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen
articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and
political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral
This review first appeared online Sept 2, 2001