Don't judge cloning by the Raelians

Posted: Jan 10, 2003 12:00 AM
It looks like the Raelians' cloning claims, like their founder's revelatory 1973 encounter with extraterrestrials, will have to be taken on faith. After initially promising genetic tests to prove they had produced a baby with the same DNA as an adult donor, they are now backpedaling. For those of us who see nothing wrong in principle with reproductive cloning, this is a welcome development. The problem is not just that the Raelians have wacky beliefs; the same could be said of any unfamiliar religion. It's that Raelian beliefs reinforce pernicious myths about cloning. According to Rael, a former French journalist once known as Claude Vorilhon, extraterrestrials called Elohim seeded Earth with human life using their own DNA thousands of years ago. He and his followers view the biblical story of creation, which says Elohim created Adam and Eve, as a garbled account of what really happened. Part of the Raelian mission is to emulate the Elohim by cloning themselves, thereby achieving "eternal life." Producing a baby through nuclear transfer -- the replacement of an ovum's genetic information with that of an adult donor -- is only the first step. "The next step," Rael says, "will be to directly clone an adult person without having to go through the growth process, and to transfer the memories and personality into this person just as the Elohim do." Now we have left the realm of science and entered the realm of science fiction -- or, more properly, science fantasy, since what the Raelians want to do probably will never be possible. One could also say that we have entered the realm of horror, since the Raelian fantasy imagines clones as literal replicas of people and treats human beings like things. These two elements play a conspicuous role in popular fears of cloning. In reality, however, human clones would not be copies of people already born, unless you take the view that one's identity can be reduced to DNA. If that were the case, "identical" twins would literally be indistinguishable, one person rather than two. The fact that they are not demonstrates that people are more than their genes. As Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey has observed, a person and his clone would in fact be less alike than identical twins, since they would be separated in time, probably by a generation or more, and would therefore have quite different experiences. In any case, there is no question that they would be distinct individuals, each with his own rights and his own life to lead. That is why the Raelian scenario is abhorrent as well as implausible: The fact that someone else has the same genes as you does not give you a right to treat him as a means to an end, as a tool in your quest for immortality or an empty vessel for your consciousness. Identical twins do not have license to enslave each other or use each other for spare parts, so there is no reason to suppose that anyone would ever be permitted to treat his clone that way. The other aspect of the Raelian enterprise that disturbs defenders of reproductive cloning is its prematurity. The moral objection to cloning that carries the most weight is the concern, based on research with other mammals, that babies produced through nuclear transfer would have an unusually high rate of birth defects. If so, reproductive cloning is unethical until this problem can be overcome. Assuming that healthy babies can be produced through cloning, however, it's hard to see why the method should be banned. Some critics worry that clones would be constrained by parental expectations based on their genetic endowment. This concern is valid, but it is not different in kind from the issues raised by the usual adolescent struggles for independence. Children produced through conventional means also may have parents with unreasonable expectations, and that is not generally seen as grounds for government intervention. Likewise, parents who consider cloning might not always have the most admirable motivations, but the same is true of people who reproduce the traditional way. The existence of egomaniacs who want to create miniature versions of themselves should not foreclose the option of cloning to infertile couples for whom it may be the only way of having genetically related children. Nor should the Raelians' creepy spin on cloning cloud the judgment of legislators who have the power to forbid that choice.