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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

In which I repeat myself about reproductive cloning

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 28th, 2010

Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, recently vented about people arguing for limiting his reproductive choices:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I’m not pushing others to clone themselves. I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

Yes, it is.

While it’s not my main concern, there is a disquieting aspect to Caplan’s wish, and Jim Henley puts his finger on it (in the course of summarizing a very good discussion about this at his blog):

The creepy part is compounded of his certainty that he and his clone-son will share a “sublime bond” and his avidity for it. […] Really, Caplan makes the same (offensive) mistake that many human-cloning opponents make: not fully recognizing that a cloned child would be its own person, as human as you or me, as like and as different.

But maybe: so what?  Lots of unfortunate kids are stuck with dads who don’t fully recognize they are their own person — my own kid told me so just last week.  Likewise, Caplan’s expectations for a high quality, even “sublime” bond with his offspring are extremely high, quite unreasonable, and not all that uncommon (although hoping to confidently buy futures in filial love is arguably a new wrinkle).

To me, the principal point against reproductive cloning is a different one, a variation on “you can’t get there from here” — namely that “you shouldn’t get there from here.”*

Mr. Caplan seems to assume a technology that will work perfectly to give him his wish, a baby genetically identical to himself. As far as what he wishes for, to each his own. But that technology won’t just appear by magic, it can only be developed by experimentation on human beings with rights — at whichever stage in development one defines as the beginning of personhood with rights. Were reproductive cloning to succeed in producing a healthy person the first time it’s tried, and reliably thereafter, I’d have no problem with it. But (a) it almost certainly won’t; (b) even as it became more reliable, one would continue to not know what would happen with the next experiment; and (c) the long-term test results Bryan Caplan would or should want (to be sure that Bryan, Jr.’s production method didn’t result in congenital problems in later life) wouldn’t be available until a large, successful cohort of experiments had lived out their experimental lives.

Caplan’s dream can only be achieved at the cost of human experimentation, on subjects as completely unable to consent as can be imagined.  To me, that would be ethically monstrous — and not because of any “ick” factor.

But let’s give Mr. Caplan the benefit of the doubt.  If he were actually confronted with someone telling him “Mr. Caplan, we’re going to try and try and try and try and try and try until we finally get you a healthy baby clone of yourself that we’re fairly sure will grow up to be a healthy adult,” he’d say no.  He might not tell us about it, but he’d say no.

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* NOTE: adapted from a late comment posted at Henley’s earliest post on the subject. Readers may recall I made similar arguments several years back.

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