Should Human Cloning Be Permitted?

Over a decade ago, I wrote a short piece called “Yes, Human Cloning Should Be Permitted,” published in the Annals of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. The piece was a response to an earlier article, by Patricia Baird, called “Should Human Cloning Be Permitted?” The question in Baird’s title was a rhetorical one: she argued that the answer was very clearly “no.”

Now, to be clear, my article wasn’t an argument in favour of cloning. In 2000, when the article was published, it was pretty clear that cloning humans would be a bad idea — the science of cloning mammals was still in its infancy, and trying it on homo sapiens would constitute unwarranted experimentation on humans. The point of my article was rather to respond to what I took to be flawed arguments in Baird’s article.

Baird argued that the psychological burdens on a clone — knowing of its own bizarre genesis — would be too severe. And yet she ignored the fact that many, many children today result from other technological interventions in the human life cycle. Just how would clones be different, in this regard? She also worried about the “commodification” of children, but didn’t mention the fact that children pretty much always constitute an expense. When you spend tens of thousands of dollars on special care for a disabled child, do you then regard them as a commodity? And she claimed that clones would miss out on an “important part of human identity,” namely the feeling of being the unique result of two genetic lineages. But, I replied, in the absence of evidence, such worries are mere pop psychology. Plenty of people don’t identify equally with both their maternal and paternal lineages, and many people grow up ignorant of one or both.

In general, the point of my argument was that the worries listed by Baird were insufficient to justify her solution, namely a ban on human cloning. Yes, the science then was primitive, but that fact justified caution, not an outright ban. But that was 2000, more than a decade ago. Have things changed? Has the science of cloning advanced to the point where it might be justifiable to try it on humans?

You can download my article in PDF form, here: “Yes, Human Cloning Should Be Permitted.”

Posted in cloning, ethics | 4 Comments

Cloned Horses Can Now Compete

The International Federation for Equestrian Sports (Fédération Équestre Internationale, or FEI) has announced a reversal of its previous decision to ban cloned horses from competition.

The FEI’s statment, quoted here, includes the following:

“The FEI will not forbid participation of clones or their progenies in FEI competitions. The FEI will continue to monitor further research, especially with regard to equine welfare.”

The key ethical issues that arise with regards to this decision are:

1) animal welfare (referred to in the quotation above),

2) fairness across competitors (which was apparently the key concern when the FEI decided, back in 2007, not to let clones compete.

Let’s focus on 2). The worry is basically that cloning is (in a weird sense) a performance-enhancement technology. A given horse’s odds are enhanced, in theory, by the fact that it is a clone of (let’s say) a champion from days gone by. But of course, cloning isn’t that expensive these days, at least not compared to the value of a champion horse (i.e., one conceived the old-fashioned way).

Also, note that to assume that cloning constitutes a significant unfair advantage presumes that nature is considerably more important than nurture. This may or may not be true with regard to elite horses — I honestly don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to be an interesting experiment. If genetic determinists are correct, then a decade from now we should expect to see dressage and other equestrian sports dominated by a few hot lineages of clones.

Posted in cloning, ethics, genes, sport | Leave a comment

Pausing Bird Flu Studies

Breaking news, from Nature: the principle investigators of the recent avian flu transmission studies (along with a couple of dozen co-authors) have publicly vowed to “pause” their research for 60 days.

What’a really interesting, though, are their reasons. They want to organize a conference to debate the issues:

“We recognize that we and the rest of the scientific community need to clearly explain the benefits of this important research and the measures taken to minimize its possible risks. We propose to do so in an international forum in which the scientific community comes together to discuss and debate these issues.”

Why is that reason interesting? It’s interesting because it seems, at least, to assume that all that is required in order to quell the public’s unease over avian flu transmission studies is for the public to near clear explanations of “the benefits of this important research.”

Now, that may well be the case. But surely not all criticisms have come from the scientifically uninformed. And there are are issues at play, here, beyond a full inventory of costs and benefits. Don’t get me wrong: I actually think this research probably needs to be done. So in fact I’m generally in agreement with the authors of this new declaration, both regarding the work and the pause. Where we differ (at least judging by this new statement) is in the content of the discussion that needs to be held. We need a discussion that at least raises the full range of relevant ethical factors, including yes costs and benefits, but also risk tolerance, rights and duties, trust, and more.

Posted in dual-use, ethics, health, regulation, risk, virology | Leave a comment

Flu Research and the Pursuit of Deadly Knowledge

One of the most fundamental ethical questions facing the world of science and technology has to do with whether some knowledge is so dangerous that it simply ought not be sought.

That, essentially, is the question posed by recent research into how bird flu could be made more deadly. Understanding the process is clearly useful to scientists who want to learn how better to combat deadly viruses. But it could also be useful to others with less noble goals.

From the Stanford Daily: Flu research sparks debate over censorship

Researchers successfully created a version of the H5N1 virus, typically only virulent in wild waterfowl, which could possibly be transmitted to humans.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was set up after 9/11 to monitor the scientific community for bioterrorist threats. This is the first time the board has recommended authors not publish parts of an article since its inception in 2004, recommending scientists redact portions of the article which contain the methodology of how to replicate the procedure….

Final note: the problems posed by such research become more and more salient as the basic tools of biotech become cheaper and more readily available.

(See also, from The Economist: Flu Research: A Deadly Balance.)

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GM Alfalfa: “Approved” or “Deregulated”?

The US Department of Agriculture has issued a decision allowing widespread planting of genetically modified alfalfa.

See this article, by Andrew Pollack for the NYT: U.S. Approves Genetically Modified Alfalfa

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Thursday that he would authorize the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa, setting aside a controversial compromise that had generated stiff opposition….

Interestingly, some described this approval — the successful passing of a product through a regulatory process — as “deregulation” of GM alfalfa. For example, the Cornucopia News had this headline: BREAKING NEWS: USDA to Fully Deregulate Monsanto’s Genetically Engineer Alfalfa — Gene Contamination of Feed, Milk, Meat and Other Products to Follow…

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this afternoon that the agency will fully deregulate Monsanto’s controversial genetically engineered alfalfa. The choice was favored by the biotech industry and one of three options identified in the USDA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) released last month….

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Biofuels Underwhelm

A new study has confirmed what common sense already made seem likely, according to this story by Dina Fine Maron for the NYT: Biofuels of No Benefit to Military — RAND

A new analysis presented to Congress yesterday paints a stark picture for the Defense Department’s current efforts to secure renewable fuels.

Fuels made from plant waste or algae will not be achievable in large or cheap enough quantities to make sense for military applications in the next decade, concluded the report penned by the RAND Corporation….

The rush to biofuels seems to have been a case in which good intentions have resulted in promoting “green” solutions that turn out to be mirages.

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Canada’s Proposed “Bill C-474”

A “private members bill” currently before Canada’s parliament will, if passed, require that “an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted” in Canada. (FYI, a bill that is a “private member’s bill” is a piece of proposed legislation brought forward by a “private member,” i.e., by a single member of parliament, usually a member of one of the Opposition parties, rather than by the governing party. Such bills rarely become law.)

See “A win for Bill C-474: NDP secures extended debate on GE crops in January,” by Lucy Sharratt

For the first time, Parliament is engaged in a real debate over the negative impacts of genetically engineered (GE) food and crops (also known as genetically modified, GM). This debate is thanks to the one-line Private Members Bill C-474, which would require “an analysis of potential harm to export markets be conducted before the sale of any new genetically engineered seed is permitted.”

Despite industry attempts to prevent the debate from happening in the first place and a successful move to shut down Agriculture Committee hearings on the Bill, Bill C-474 continues to force more debate in both the House of Commons and the Agriculture Committee.

The Bill identifies the core problem of GE crops being approved in Canada despite predicted negative economic impacts….

See also “The Importance of Bill C-474”, by Joyce Nelson, at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

(For some technical details, see the Bill C-474 page at

It’s interesting to note that the articles above are trumpeting C-474 as an important anti-GM step, even though all the bill calls for is a strictly economic analysis.

Posted in agriculture, GMO, regulation, risk | 8 Comments

Unethical Lizard

Is this lizard unethical?

From National Geographic, see the Self-Cloning Lizard.

According to National Geo,

…the newfound Leiolepis ngovantrii is no run-of-the-mill reptile—the all-female species reproduces via cloning, without the need for male lizards.

Since so many people apparently think cloning is unethical (typically because it is “unnatural”), surely we must conclude that this reptile, too, is unethical?

(And yes, I’m joking about the lizard being unethical. But the lizard itself, apparently, is real.)

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Synthetic Biology: Ready, Set, Go!

By Andrew Pollack, for the NYT: U.S. Bioethics Commission Gives Green Light to Synthetic Biology

The president’s bioethics commission says there is no need to temporarily halt research or to impose new regulations on the controversial new field known as synthetic biology.

In a report being issued Thursday, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues says that at present the technology — which involves creating novel organisms through the synthesis and manipulation of DNA — poses few risks because it is still in its infancy….

A few key points:

  • Self-regulation by biologists is a key recommendation. Good idea, but the details will matter a lot. Science, unlike law & medicine, are not licensed professions. That makes meaningful self-regulation harder.
  • The Report also features a recommendation that scientists in this field receive training in ethics. As an ethics educator, it’s easy for me to cheer for that one. But it’s not immediately clear to me that the kinds of worries that feature prominently in criticisms of synthetic biology — ecological damage, bio-terrorism, etc. — are ones that can meaningfully be dealt with this way.
  • It’s not surprising that opponents of syn-bio have been harshly critical of the Report. On the other hand, the lavish praise heaped on the report by BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization) worries me somewhat…it makes me worry that the recommendations for regulatory oversight are not as challenging to industry as they might be. In the abstract, I would have liked to see a set of recommendations that BIO saw as tough but fair, instead of as “reasonable, well balanced and insightful.”
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Ethics, Policy, and Synthetic Biology

By Jef Akst, writing for The Scientist: Q&A: Ethics chair on synthetic biology

The Scientist spoke with chair Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, about the commission’s conclusions that, despite the potential risks of creating synthetic organisms, the research should be allowed to continue.

The interview provides a good primer on the ethical issues. I’ll just point out one interesting bit. Near the start, Gutmann says:

Given that it’s a very new field, there is an opportunity to ensure that as it develops, its benefits for the public are maximized and its risk, correspondingly, minimized.

Without the benefits, no risks are worth taking. So we have to begin with the benefits…. [emphasis added]

That sounds reasonable enough, except that — depending on how narrowly you read the word “benefits” — it seems to cut off the possibility of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

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