Books in Review

Who’s Afraid of Human Cloning?

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 91 (March 1999): 54-56.

Joe Fletcher’s Clone

Who’s Afraid of Human Cloning? By Gregory Pence. Rowman & Littlefield. 181 pp. $45 cloth, $ 12.95 paper.

Reviewed by Jorge Garcia

Gregory Pence’s Who’s Afraid of Human Cloning? is one of the first book–length defenses of the ethics of cloning human beings written by a philosophically trained bioethicist since the announcement in Britain of a successful experiment in cloning an adult animal.

After surprisingly negative initial reactions among "ethicists" to the prospect of cloning human beings, a predictable revisionism has set in, with many thinkers repudiating their earlier objections to cloning people. (The New York Times saw fit to print Laurence Tribe’s op–ed "Second Thoughts on Cloning," though it contained no reasons—let alone new ones—to think cloning humans permissible.) Some of this appears to be motivated by a worry that any restriction on human cloning would be difficult to square with the abortion culture’s insistence that any limits on someone’s reproductive activities is an illegitimate infringement of her "reproductive rights." Pence is squarely within this camp.

His initial chapters offer mildly useful reviews of what the British scientists did, what ethicists have said about cloning during the past two decades, and what science fiction writers have imagined about it. Later chapters treat cloning and sexuality, embryo experimentation, arguments for and against human cloning, and the regulation of cloning. The book is less than two hundred pages, with most of its chapters only about a dozen pages long, and it is written in a lively style. Unfortunately, it is filled with arguments that are shallow, unfair, and foolish.

Pence, a philosopher, touches on a broad range of topics in the history of theology, scriptural interpretation, literary criticism, social behavior, and cultural development. Much of what he says on these topics is superficial: Augustine, Pence tells us, thought in marriage God gave people a license to sin. Since a sin is something God forbids and a license grants permission, we should like to hear more about the warrant for attributing this self–contradictory position to the great theologian. In this, we are disappointed. Contemporary Roman Catholics are taken to task for a supposed moral flip–flop in holding that "Sexual desire is no longer an evil force that lures young people to hell—it has now become an uplifting expression of love in happy marriages": as if it were not possible, and even likely, that sexual desire is both good for married couples and dangerous for itchy teenagers. Again, when a Lutheran theologian worries that cloning might not comport with Genesis’ picture of procreation, Pence complains that "the problem with Protestants justifying their views on biblical passages is that they only go there to justify what they already believe, not to find guidance." How he knows the man did not seek and receive guidance from the passage, did not read and reflect on it many times—the man is, after all, a theologian—Pence does not reveal. Pence’s irritation extends beyond Scripture and churches to God himself. When some believers protest than human cloning contradicts the biblical idea that a child is God’s gift, he impatiently asks "the Giver of the gift," with birth defects in mind, "‘Gee, couldn’t you do any better than that?’"

Besides showing contempt for Catholics and Protestants alike, Pence unashamedly manifests his ethnic prejudices. To the worry that "asexual reproduction" might so denature sex that cloning may come to rival intercourse as a way to have children, he counters with the snide reassurance that "for every high–minded couple who produced a superior child by [cloning] there would be a Brazilian couple who produced nine children by normal sex." The suggested contrast is stark even within the eugenics–tinged rhetoric of the fans of human cloning: "Better babies" and "superior child[ren]" for the "high–minded" through high–tech reproduction? Or Latinos rutting away, turning out their litters of inferior humans?

Eugenics aside, Pence’s case for cloning amounts to little more than the usual assertions that cloning will give some people what they want and the standard appeals to supposed "reproductive rights." He is not above reducing his own arguments to their extreme and then embracing them. He proclaims it an advantage of cloning, indeed an advance in fairness, that it allows homosexuals to reproduce without having to trouble with reproductive sex. In Pence’s world, justice means people are entitled to whatever they want without regard to nature. Since cloning also affords this service to avowed celibates, and even those with a yen for self–castration—not to mention opening reproduction to children, the unborn, and the dead—great strides against injustice seem just around the corner.

Pence’s essays into moral theory are maladroit. He does John Stuart Mill’s liberalism no favor by reducing its controversial "harm principle" to the claim that we are not permitted to tell people when they are acting immorally. Again, he thinks it suspicious when people believe something is wrong without being confident they can explain why, but the fact is that we frequently know the features a thing has without knowing the reasons it has them. This sort of dismissal of moral common sense used to impress people when it was plausible to think other theories could do without moral intuitions. It is now clear, however, that even utilitarian and consequentialist theories are filled with choices—based only on our intuition of what is right—between versions that maximize goods and those that minimize evils, those that maximize total good and those that maximize average good, those that restrict use of the utility principle to critics of moral action and those that extend it to agents’ deliberations as well. Given all that, prissy disdain for the messiness of moral intuitions appears to be mere self–delusion.

Pence does little seriously to engage the major objections to human cloning raised by Leon Kass, Gilbert Meilaender, and others. To the charge that it may further erode family life, he responds that family life faces bigger, more immediate threats. True, but that is no reason to exacerbate a bad situation. As for concern that "asexual reproduction" will serve further to denature sex, Pence’s views are unreconstructedly liberationist. He enthusiastically endorses one philosopher’s account of "plain sex," according to which sex is understood in terms of a supposedly more fundamental notion of sexual desire, with that in turn defined as wanting physical contact and its pleasures. This theory has a few drawbacks (for one, sex—sexual differentiation, sexual organs, sexual activities—is found among plants, who have no desires; for another, this definition of sexual desire doesn’t distinguish it from an urge to punch an enemy), but Pence cannot be bothered explaining or defending his position. To him, the debate is simply a battle between those on the side of human cloning, who trust people and follow reason, and those who fear people and react irrationally. Those who raise moral criticisms against embryo experiments merit only derision as "the embryo–saving crowd" and even "Keepers of the Holy Embryos."

Pence does nothing to show that human cloning leaves intact human uniqueness and dignity, especially in such wilder scenarios as someone making multiple clones of herself or someone’s muddying familial life by bearing a child cloned from her own parent’s genes. When children are manufactured to designer specifications, they and we are all debased and endangered.

Pence’s own half–hearted endorsement of weak and temporary regulations on human cloning barely conceals his almost unreserved glee over the practice itself. By the end of the book he casts aside any pretense to scholarly diffidence and rejoices in the cloning of multiples, which had bothered him just a chapter before. He calls for a day when cloning can help us match babies to parents as we can dogs to owners, and he affirms that people are but "compassionate monkeys."

To Pence, the whole question of cloning human beings needs to be "Fletcherized," by which he means it needs an injection of the crude act–utilitarianism of the late Joseph Fletcher, whose "situation ethics" sank religious ethics into secular degradation three decades ago and spawned the proportionalist "revisionism" that still afflicts much Catholic and some Protestant moral thinking. Fletcher—to whom Pence affectionately applies one of Stalin’s nicknames, "Old Joe"—was ahead of his time in breaking eggs to cook up his omelette: mercy killing, abortion, fetal and pre–fetal experimentation, and the manufacture of human beings all figured in his recipe. Pence proclaims in his book’s last sentence, "Call me Joe Fletcher’s clone." He has, unfortunately, lived down to that aspiration.

Jorge Garcia is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University.