Sunday, April 27, 2003

Review: Perfect Copy

I read this book a few weeks ago, and I've been meaning to blog about it ever since. Perfect Copy: Unravelling the Cloning Debate (Ikon, 2002) is an exploration of the ethics of cloning by Nick Agar, who lectured me in Bioethics and the ethics of genetic technologies when I was at Vic.

The first chapter lays out "the rules of ethical engagement" - principles which are (hopefully) shared by all participants in the debate, and should provide some common ground from which to work. The second of these principles - that we should be consistent - is unproblematic. The first - the intrinsic value of human life (or "people matter") - isn't, because while it's something that everyone will agree to, it means very different things to different people. In particular, it matters a great deal whether you interpret that intrinsic value in terms of "personhood" (as done by people like Peter Singer) or e.g. in terms of biological life (usually as a mask for an immortal soul granted at conception - the religious conservative POV). This unfortunately comes back to bite us later.

After a chapter covering the science of cloning, we get to start applying those ethical rules. Currently cloning is very much an experimental technology with a high failure rate and a propensity to produce sickly, short-lived clones. Does this mean we shouldn't be cloning people? The prospect of using abortion to winnow out the failures gets us straight into the abortion debate, and thus brings those disputes about what "human life" means into sharp focus. Religious conservatives will be appalled at the prospect of having to abort 276 foetuses to get one clone. Personhood theorists will shrug their shoulders and say "they're not people, and so don't matter". So much for our common ground...

Nick adopts the personhood interpretation, but points out that the technological problems mean that a clone which survives to birth may still fail the welfare test (lead a life which is worse than no life at all - another principle that religious conservatives would probably object to), and that if we adopt a precautionary stance, we shouldn't be cloning people. There's an unstated "yet" on the end of that conclusion, as it depends on technological problems which will (hopefully) disappear as the technology matures.

Chapter four is a brief diversion into "therapeutic cloning" - cloning to provide stem cells or even entire body parts. The former is essentially identical to abortion, and thus really only a problem for religious conservatives. The second is more interesting. While it's entirely morally unproblematic to grow an organ in a vat (or at least, no more problematic than harvesting the stem cells in the first place), the easiest and most technologically feasible way to get parts is to grow an entire human being. Provided that human is not a person, then this theoretically poses no problems for personhood theorists. (Un?)fortunately, all but the most hardened of them shy away at the thought of deliberately inducing a persistent vegetative state in an embryo so you can later harvest them for parts. It's too much like the Epsilons of Huxley's Brave New World, or Michael Marshall Smith's Spares. Personhood is a remarkably useful moral theory, and so the challenge is to find a way to have our cake and eat it too (or, I suppose, to find a way to be comfortable with some of the implications of our beliefs).

Chapter five addresses the questions of cloning and identity, and the idea of achieving immortality through cloning. Nothing much to say here, except that those who think that their clones will be them (such as the Raelians) or that they can somehow replace a dead child or pet by cloning it are deeply misguided people, and are likely to be horribly disappointed.

Chapter six covers the use of cloning as a reproductive technology, primarily in the context of allowing infertile couples to have children who are genetically related to them, but also using several other examples (lesbians reproducing without needing men; providing an organ donor for another child). There's a hodge-podge of moral issues here, but the main questions seem to be about the psychology of a potential clone's parents rather than the morality of cloning itself. Given the hassle involved in cloning, the obvious answer would be counselling, just as for IVF.

The final chapter, "Fear itself can be frightening" is the most curious. Nick argues that popular misconceptions about cloning could cause people to stigmatise and discriminate against clones; applying the welfare test, we could conclude that a life of prejudice and stigmatisation is worse than no life at all, and therefore under the precautionary principle we shouldn't clone anyone until more liberal attitudes prevail. To his credit, Nick recognises the danger in this "bigotry is its own justification" argument, and attempts to draw a distinction based on the presence of communities of racial or sexual minorities, which insulate members of those minorities from prejudice. The first clones, on the other hand,

"...will be coming into a world incapable of supplying them with the goods of community that might ward off some of the harmful effects of stigmatisation. They will be truly alone."

To me, this seems akin to saying that discrimination in the pre-Civil Rights American South justified their laws against miscegenation.

Quite apart from pandering to bigotry, the community argument is a perfect example of one of those popular misconceptions which Nick is worried about: the belief that clones will be fundamentally different from other human beings, and incapable of bonding with or receiving emotional support from them. This simply doesn't gel with the no-nonsense approach he's taken in the rest of the book, which would lead us to regard clones as ordinary people with unusual circumstances surrounding their birth. We have ordinary people who are under the media microscope practically every day from birth (children of celebrities or politicians), or who are the only member of a persecuted minority in their local area and thus effectively excluded from the community (e.g. the only gay guy or atheist in a small Alabama town). They get along, so why wouldn't clones? As for the argument that people shouldn't be enlisted in the fight against bigotry without their consent, it happens all the time - bigots ensure it.

Overall, Perfect Copy is an interesting book, and provides a good introduction to the topic. It's biggest flaw (apart from the shockingly illiberal chapter seven) is that the "common ground" it adopts as a starting point for ethical argument isn't. The reason for adopting "the intrinsic value of human life" as a guiding principle is to avoid disputes such as that between atheists and theists over whether there are such things as immortal souls; unfortunately it is simply papering over these differences. What you define as "human life" is crucially important to the debate, and leads to very different conclusions - and that "what" is in turn informed by people's beliefs about why human life is important in the first place. Unless we have agreement on these questions, we have no common ground at all.