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As technology advances at breakneck speed, human cloning may be close behind

Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

He recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 12 April 2023.

There are not many convincing arguments for human cloning. From an ethical standpoint, the arguments against it are overwhelming. But we can’t dismiss the possibility out of hand.

On 5 July 1996, Dolly the sheep was born from a Scottish Blackface surrogate sheep. With a white face that stood in stark contrast with her surrogate mother, she let out a bleating cry to great excitement in the room.

Dolly was the first successful instance of animal cloning, created from the udder cells of a ewe. Many thought this would signal the beginning of human cloning but 30 years on from this moment, we have yet to venture into this terrain. Cloning is perhaps one of the most notable instances of the tightrope between technological advancement and ethics.

There have been strides in the area in recent years. Scientists have cloned plants and various other animals, such as cattle, goats and cats. Whether this has been done successfully, however, remains in question. The animals produced by cloning suffer from various severe health handicaps, such as distorted limbs, dysfunctional organs, gross obesity and premature death.

Dolly, for example, was euthanised at six years old, despite the lifespan of a sheep being 12. Her health rapidly deteriorated as she endured progressive lung disease and arthritis. Beyond the lessons we have learnt from cloning other animals, the very idea of human cloning remains contentious.

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), cloning aims to produce “genetically identical copies of a biological entity”. Notably, there are distinctions to be made about what we mean by cloning.

Scientists refer to three examples: cloning genes, cloning cells and cloning individuals. Cloning genes and cells is routinely practised and allows for genetic testing and investigation. However, as I have indicated in a previous article on this platform on gene editing, despite advancements in the field of genetics, there are still vast ethical and legal considerations in these processes.

Cloning of individuals, however, presents an entirely new frontier. There are two central arguments for cloning: producing children who are genetically identical to existing individuals, particularly in cases of infertility or unconventional family structures; and the creation of cloned embryos for research or therapy.

Despite these arguments, human cloning is banned throughout most of the world. In 1998, physicist Leon Kass reflected on the creation of Dolly and declared the very thought of human cloning unethical. As he wrote in The wisdom of repugnance: why we should ban the cloning of humans, “The prospect of human cloning, so repulsive to contemplate, is the occasion for deciding whether we shall be slaves of unregulated progress, and ultimately its artefacts, or whether we shall remain free human beings who guide our technique toward the enhancement of human dignity.”

Various ethical considerations give impetus to this thought. Firstly, as demonstrated by the examples of animal cloning, various health risks are posed. As the process is experimental in nature, there could be congenital disabilities, genetic abnormalities or the risk of premature death in humans.

Secondly, concerns around eugenics crop up. As history has taught us, human experimentation has a distinctly ugly side. For instance, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazis conducted horrific experiments on twins found in the concentration camps.

Led by physician Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, one twin was often used as the control while the other was used as a test subject and subjected to torture, injected with diseases, forced inseminations and amputations, among other ghastly scenarios. Human cloning could be an avenue back into this very dangerous terrain.

Thirdly, as Kass argued, clones cannot consent to the process of human cloning. This is a contentious argument in itself. Some proponents of cloning argue that no one is able to consent to being born, and thus the argument is null. However, the risks associated with the process of cloning, including health risks and the unknown mental impact, are used as a justification for this argument by other camps.

Fourthly, there is a distinction between biological and cultural inheritance. As Francisco Ayala concluded in 2015 in Cloning humans? Biological, ethical, and social considerations, “cloning an individual, particularly in the case of a multicellular organism, such as a plant or an animal, is not strictly possible. The genes of an individual, the genome, can be cloned, but the individual itself cannot be cloned.”

For example, identical twins represent the idea of natural cloning but develop different personalities and lived experiences despite being genetically identical. An individual’s character, personality, values, behaviour and preferences are not determined by the genotype or the cloned material, but rather by the phenotype, or interaction of genes with the environment.

As Nobel Laureate geneticist George W Beadle once said, “few of us would have advocated preferential multiplication of Hitler’s genes. Yet who can say that in a different cultural context, Hitler might not have been one of the truly great leaders of men, or that Einstein might not have been a political villain.”

This brings into question why cloning would even be considered if the resulting clone would be different from the cloned individual. On the one hand, this is a persuasive argument for a clone’s distinct personhood but does not constitute enough of an argument to introduce cloning as an alternative to other reproductive means.

These ethical conundrums scratch the surface of the argument. Perhaps a key consideration in the debate for human cloning is the principles that would be required to guide the process.

For instance, Nabavizadeh et al assert that six features should be considered: human cloning should be advantageous to human society in a manner impossible by other methods; successful instances of animal cloning would need to occur first; all unnecessary physical and mental risks should be prevented; the process of cloning should be stopped if death or deficiency is probable; actions should be taken to prevent death or deficiency; and research should be halted if there is a belief that death, deficiency or damage of the tested individual could occur.

Seemingly, there are not many convincing arguments for human cloning. From an ethical standpoint, the arguments against human cloning are overwhelming.

Yet, as we venture further into a technologically advanced world, it would be myopic to dismiss the very possibility of human cloning ever occurring. As the American writer Mary E Pearson argued, “what we think is ethical today, we may not have thought ethical five or 10 years ago. Cloning, stem cell research? However we feel about those things today, we may feel differently 10 years from now.”

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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