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Should human cloning be banned?

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Lee Byeong-Chun (holding Bona)

Professor Lee Byeong-Chun of Seoul National University holds Bona, a cloned Afghan hound.

Photo: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images.
Question: Should human cloning be banned?
Answer: Human cloning is illegal in some states, and institutions that receive U.S. federal funding are prohibited from experimenting with it, but there is no federal ban on human cloning in the United States. Should there be? Let's take a closer look.

What is cloning? Cloning, as About.com biology guide Regina Bailey defines it, "refers to the development of offspring that are genetically identical to their parents." While cloning is often referred to as an unnatural process, it occurs quite often in nature. Identical twins are clones, for example, and asexual creatures reproduce by cloning. Artificial human cloning, however, is both very new and very complex.

Is artificial cloning safe? Not yet. It took 277 unsuccessful embryo implantations to produce Dolly the Sheep, and clones tend to age rapidly and experience other health problems. The science of cloning is not particularly advanced.

So what are the benefits of cloning? Cloning can be used to:
  • Produce embryonic stem cells in large quantities ;
  • Genetically alter animals to produce organs that can more easily be transplanted into humans ;
  • Allow individuals or couples to reproduce through means other than sexual reproduction ; and
  • Grow replacement human organ tissue from scratch.
At this point, the live debate in the United States is over cloning of human embryos. Scientists generally agree that it would be irresponsible to clone a human being until cloning has been perfected, given that the cloned human would probably face serious, and ultimately terminal, health issues.

Would a ban on human cloning pass constitutional muster? A ban on embryonic human cloning probably would, at least for now. The Founding Fathers didn't address the issue of human cloning, but it's possible to make an educated guess about how the Supreme Court might rule on cloning by looking at abortion law.

In abortion, there are two competing interests--the interests of the embryo or fetus, and the constitutional rights of the pregnant woman. The government has ruled that the government's interest in protecting embryonic and fetal life is legitimate at all stages, but does not become "compelling"--i.e., sufficient to outweigh the woman's constitutional rights--until the point of viability, usually defined as 22 or 24 weeks.

In human cloning cases, there is no pregnant woman whose constitutional rights would be violated by a ban. Therefore, it is quite likely that the Supreme Court would rule that there is no constitutional reason why the government cannot advance its legitimate interest in protecting embryonic life by banning human cloning.

This is independent of tissue-specific cloning. The government has no legitimate interest in protecting kidney or liver tissue.

Okay, so embryonic cloning can be banned. But should it be banned in the United States? The political debate over human embryonic cloning centers on two techniques:
  • Therapeutic cloning, or the cloning of embryos with the intention of destroying those embryos to harvest stem cells.
  • Reproductive cloning, or the cloning of embryos for the purpose of implantation.
Nearly all politicians agree that reproductive cloning should be banned, but there is an ongoing debate over the legal status of therapeutic cloning. Conservatives in Congress would like to ban it; most liberals in Congress would not.

For my part, I wonder why it would be necessary to produce new embryos for stem cell harvesting when there are so many discarded embryos that could be used for the same purpose. Putting bioethics aside for a moment, that seems incredibly wasteful.

Doesn't the FDA already prohibit human cloning? The FDA has asserted the authority to regulate human cloning, which means that no scientist can clone a human being without permission. But some policymakers say they're concerned that the FDA might one day stop asserting that authority, or even approve human cloning without consulting Congress.
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