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Cloning and the Giftedness of Life

photograph of newborn children in hospital

Sir Ian Wilmut, the person who led the team responsible for cloning Dolly the Sheep, died on September 10, 2023. Dolly’s emergence onto the world stage represented a colossal scientific breakthrough. It took an idea that had existed solely in science fiction and brought it into the real world, much to the surprise of countless naysayers who had claimed that adult mammal cloning was impossible. Wilmut and his team’s efforts demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that rather than cells holding only the genetic information necessary to undertake their specific job – heart cells need to know how to be heart cells, for example – a single mammary cell, from which Dolly was cloned, held the genetic blueprint for an entire sheep. Something we now know to be true for most of the cells within the body.

Unsurprisingly, though, Dolly’s creation opened the door to numerous ethical and philosophical questions. Or at least, gave them a new weight. Until 1997, cloning, at least in mammals, had been considered in the abstract. However, Dolly meant that the context of this pontification went from academically interesting to socially essential. Cloning’s real-world impact and permissibility were no longer solely the concern of philosophers, ethically-minded scientists, and science fiction fans. Everyone had to wrestle with cloning’s social, legal, and ethical consequences. And to this day, many of these questions remain unanswered.

So, with Wilmut’s passing shining the spotlight on cloning, I thought I’d take the time to explore just one of the arguments against cloning’s use for reproductive purposes – that it eliminates the giftedness of life.

This argument was first proposed by the philosopher Michael Sandel in the article The Case Against Perfection. In it, Sandel argues that our drive to exercise mastery over our lives and reduce the chaos of existing in a fluctuating universe can hide the value in such randomness and harm our relationship with things that may not live up to our standards. He does this in the context of human enhancement during reproduction. In short, Sandel argues that our offspring need to be seen as gifts which we receive and over which we have precious little control in terms of the form or shape they arrive. When we have children, we don’t know whether they will be tall or short, sporty or academic, a rule-taker or rule-breaker. Yet, despite not knowing these things, we should love our children regardless. For him, children are entities to be received and unconditionally loved, not subjects of human design, because thinking of them in terms of the latter may, and perhaps must, destroy the relationship between parent and child – it turns children into selectable or rejectable products.

While Sandel’s argument was initially situated in the context of human enhancement, he later expanded it in his book, also called The Case Against Perfection, to consider how parents should act when faced with illness and disease. While this is done in a specific context, his argument also has a bearing on cloning as a form of reproduction. By its very nature, cloning looks to remove the complex genetic recombination inherent in sexual reproduction.

When parents have children, genes are pulled from each biological contributor and combined to create a new genome, leading to a unique individual. This process is unpredictable, and absent extensive genetic testing and scientific interventions, what form the eventual child will take is somewhat unpredictable. In cloning, however, this recombination of genetic material from the biological parents is replaced by the (mostly) carbon copying of genetics from the DNA donor. In the case of Dolly, the sheep from which her genetic material was donated. Gone is the creation of the new genome, replaced by the replication of an already existing entity.

It must be acknowledged here that we are far more than our genes, and simply because two individuals share the same genetic material does not mean they will grow to be the same person. Anyone who knows twins will have first-hand knowledge of this fact. Yet, one cannot deny our genetics’ significant role in making us who we are. I would not be the same if I had a different genome, as that genetic foundation underpins my physical body as well as my personality.

Thus, to attempt to clone an individual, be that yourself or someone else, is to reject the uncontrollable nature inherent in sexual reproduction. It is to say that rather than having a child who may be like you, your partner, neither, or both, you want to try and replicate an individual with whom you already have some form of relationship (and that might be yourself). In terms of gift-giving, it is to reject the uncertainty of receiving a present from someone else instead of buying yourself a gift.

Now, this might not be an issue. After all, we do want to exercise control over our lives. I don’t want to leave the house each morning and have no idea what will happen to me. When I get ill, I don’t want to treat that as a gift from the universe; I want to do what I can to get well. Why should reproduction be any different? If I have the tools to ensure my child will be as healthy as I am, why shouldn’t I use them? A complete response to these questions is far beyond the scope of this piece. But, if the language of giftedness is appropriate here, then receiving something as a gift does bring an additional value, which obtaining that same item by purchasing it yourself does not; getting a Christmas jumper as a gift is far better than buying one. If that works for people, it may also translate to the universe.

While cloning has come a long way since Dolly’s birth in 1997, we have yet to see a human be cloned. This is because of both technical and ethical reasons. Yet, animal cloning has come on in leaps and bounds. Barbara Streisand has two clones of her deceased dog, and disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk (who made false claims about successfully cloning humans) now makes a wealthy living cloning camels for the United Arab Emirates’ rich and powerful. Indeed, this rejection of uncertainty is fully displayed in the animal cloning world.

So, while it may be tempting to use cloning as a way of eliminating reproduction’s unknowns, we may lose something important in doing so. By attempting to exercise control over the fundamental processes that enable us to have children, we might end up devaluing those people we bring into the world. Instead, it might be better, perhaps even essential, to leave that part of reproduction up to the fates, exercise some humility, and love whatever and whoever we happen to end up with.

A Brave New Pod? The EctoLife Fantasy

ultrasound image

If you’re wondering what an entire facility of artificial wombs may look like, then look no further. On December 9, 2022, Hashem Al-Ghaili released his concept, “EctoLife,” via YouTube. The video offers a glimpse into the “world’s first artificial womb facility,” or rather what looks like a sci-fi dystopia movie – rows of fetuses in pods being “produced” in a factory-like environment. While only a idea for now, what is essentially on offer is the ability for parents to produce customized children that bypasses the process of pregnancy altogether.

Renewable energy powers the fantasy facility’s 75 labs, all equipped with up to 400 growth pods designed to provide a similar environment to inside a mother’s womb. Designed to “grow” 30,000 babies a year, EctoLife promises non-gestational pregnancy, control of the gestational environment, and the chance for parents to witness their baby’s growth and development using an app on their phone and via a VR headset. The hope, the narrator in the video claims, is that such an apparatus could be used to combat infertility by allowing parents to have biologically related offspring without experiencing pregnancy or conception. Additionally, parents could “customize” their embryo and choose their child’s level of intelligence, height, hair and eye color, skin tone, and physical strength.

Unsurprisingly, this video has attracted much attention and currently has 2.1 million views on YouTube. Described in the comments section as “insanely scary” and “truly alarming,” some have likened the idea to a modern-day Matrix. USA Today has refuted false claims that such a facility exists, and Dr. Guid Oei, a gynecologist and professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology, has confirmed that the technology in the video is not currently possible.

Although EctoLife is pure fantasy, it does provide a rather interesting thought experiment for exploring our moral intuitions concerning the creation of future children.

Concerns over “designer babies” are not new; similar fears circulated when in vitro fertilization (IVF) was first developed. However, the possibility of child customization – using a “genetic menu” that offers the choice of over 300 genes – goes much further than reproductive technology like IVF, which has a more limited capability of recognizing and removing genetic abnormalities in an embryo. Today, this is done using a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). PGD is not currently regulated in the United States, and whilst it is used to screen for genetic diseases, it’s also commonly offered for sex selection. One study found that in the United States, 72.7% of fertility clinics offer sex selection and 83.5% of those clinics offer sex selection for couples without infertility problems. Meanwhile, the development of CRISPR-Cas9 is the most advanced science has become in gene editing and likely the closest we will get to “customizing” genes. This gene-editing technology can remove, add, or alter precise sections of our DNA sequence. However, there are some that argue that the high risk of collateral damage makes CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing ultimately unethical.

The EctoLife video promises parents the power to design “the most viable and genetically superior embryo” – labeling undesirable qualities and traits as genetic defects to be removed and placing negative connotations on (perceived) disabilities. But surely which attributes represent the “best qualities” in society is a subjective question; qualities that one individual may find desirable, another may not. Who can really say?

There have been examples of parents who have selected for certain qualities that some individuals may choose to select against. For example, a deaf couple who deliberately chose to have a deaf child did so because they did not consider their deafness a disability. Instead, they saw it as a cultural identity – a quality that enabled (and structured) communication with others within the deaf community. In an interview with The Washington Post, the parents asserted that they would make better parents to a deaf child. Many, however, criticized the parents for the “harm” that were believed to have intentionally foisted on that child. Others were not convinced. For instance, Julian Savulescu, in “Deaf Lesbians, Designer Disability, and the Future of Medicine,” insisted that a child “is harmed by being selected to exist only if his or her life is so bad it is not worth living. Deafness is not that bad.” Instead, Savulescu argued that parents should have the freedom to choose the “best” child for them, and not only that, he argued that all parents have a moral responsibility to do so.

So, should we have the freedom to extend our reproductive choices so far as to “fully customize” our children as EctoLife advertises? Do we have a moral obligation not only to prevent “suffering” in future children but also to “enhance” them?

The proposed ability to choose specific characteristics in EctoLife’s “elite package” pose a variety of issues. The liberalization of these choices may risk the creation of “designer babies,” which are unlikely to come without a hefty price tag. There is already a lack of insurance coverage for IVF in the United States, and it seems unlikely that insurance companies would pay for parents to “embryo shop” in this capacity. It is projected that the average cost of a single IVF cycle in 2023 can range from $15,000 to $30,000. It is therefore likely that if the EctoLife fantasy did exist, the projected costs for parents would be far higher. This may mean that the “elite” have a monopoly over the technology, as well as an outsized influence over which qualities make a child the “best.” Sure, the financially secure already have this capacity via social advantages, but allowing for “fully customizable” embryos and the creation of preference-matched children may encourage eugenic practices.

Still, we’re very far away from tailor-made humans “hatched” on a production line, and, in reality, it is highly unlikely EctoLife will ever come to be – firstly, due to it being outside of the realms of scientific possibility, and, secondly, because of the current restrictions in the U.S. attached to the editing of human embryos. At the moment, EctoLife is simply no more than a fanciful thought experiment. However, it certainly encourages us to revisit the ethical debate over where to draw the line between prevention and enhancement, as well as whether the benefits of gene editing can outweigh the potential societal harms.

Consent, Commodification, and Anderson Cooper’s Surrogacy Case 

Anderson Cooper standing at a podium with a woman sitting in a chair behind him

Recently, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper announced the birth of his son through surrogacy. On June 10th, Cooper and his son made an appearance on People magazine where Cooper talked about the experience of surrogacy and raising his 6 week old son. However, his decision to have a baby through surrogacy has been met with significant controversy: where some congratulated Anderson Cooper, others questioned the ethics of surrogacy. Surprisingly, surrogacy isn’t a partisan issue where even in left leaning circles, many disagree about surrogacy’s place as a way for gay or lesbian couples to have a chance to raise a child while others argue it is a commodification of women’s bodies. Anderson Cooper’s surrogacy case is now starting larger discussions about the ethics of surrogacy. 

The first question that arises is if surrogates can give informed consent. The definition of informed consent is stated as permission granted in the knowledge of the possible consequences with full knowledge of the possible risks and benefits. When a surrogate signs a contract to give all legal rights away to the connection of the child, many times, surrogates do not know the feeling of the emotional bond of mother to baby nor the experience of carrying a child. So how could a surrogate, especially a first-time mother, know the experience of having a strong emotional bond to the baby? They don’t, so to have potential surrogates sign contracts, while not knowing the experience of being mothers, means that surrogates cannot give informed consent because they cannot possibly know what it is like to give up their baby. 

However, even if a surrogate is not a first-time mother and can give full consent, one needs to consider whose choice is forgotten in this case? The baby’s choice. If you put yourself in the baby’s position, would you want to stay with your mother or a foreign family you are being sold to? Not only can some surrogate mothers not give full informed consent, but the baby’s preferred choice has not been taken into account. Many think only two parties are involved in surrogacy: the surrogate and the adopters, but the baby is the third party that has to be considered.  

Secondly, surrogates cannot provide informed consent because surrogacy disproportionally attracts women of lower income. This explains why surrogacy is especially prevalent in developing countries such as Ukraine, Russia, and India where laws are lax and many people are of lower income. Whether or not surrogates are from the US or other countries, women who are struggling through financially hard times are more vulnerable to coercion due to the mindset of scarcity when struggling through poverty. Women are often coerced into risking their health or even their lives when signing the unbreakable contract to giving away the child. Furthermore, when in circumstances of financial scarcity, potential surrogates are more likely to sign exploitative contracts where pregnancy-related medical issues during or after pregnancy are not covered or where the surrogate is not sufficiently paid. 

Another key part of surrogacy is if it pays for the baby, the service, or both. The answer yields two very different moral viewpoints; if surrogacy pays for a baby, this means a baby is being bought and sold, putting a price tag on human life. This carries enormous consequences to individual rights of the modern world because it would mean human life and value can be measured instead of being infinitely valuable. But if surrogacy only pays for the service of carrying the baby, some would say there isn’t much of a difference between a surrogate and a 24/7, nine-month-long babysitter. The debate around if surrogacy is a payment for the service or the baby depends on the situation. If the surrogate mother is artificially inseminated, some argue surrogacy pays for the baby because it uses the oocyte of the surrogate to produce the baby. If the surrogate were to carry an embryo of the biological parents, then it would be considered a service, because the surrogate is only raising the baby in the womb, not providing reproductive material. However, this reasoning leads to the assumption that new life (reproduction) starts at conception. If one believes that life starts at birth, then surrogacy implies paying for the baby because the pregnancy is part of the process of making new life. Surrogacy would only seem ethically permissible if the surrogate is carrying the “living” embryo of the two biological parents, because the embryo has already been created and now carrying it is a service. Even then, a biological reproductive service seems quite different in moral worth from an economic service like babysitting. 

However, advocates of surrogacy would argue that disallowing women to sell their reproductive services would be unequal, because men are able to sell their reproductive services. So why would we allow sperm donation but not allow surrogacy? There are two significant differences between sperm donors and surrogate mothers. Sperm donors can give implied consent because they have full knowledge of how their sperm will be used, whereas surrogates might experience unexpected effects like an emotional bond to the baby. Secondly, surrogacy requires nine months of pregnancy and the delivery of a baby, while sperm donors have no interaction with the baby; therefore, these differences cannot be held at an equal standard. Rather, egg donors seem to be the equal standard to sperm donors since both meet the same standards of consent and disconnect from offspring. In surrogacy, the moral worth of mother and baby and the ability to develop new life is inexplicably precious, but putting a monetary value on pregnancy might degrade the intrinsic value of carrying and delivering a baby. Society would no longer view pregnancy as an unbreakable bond with a baby but view it as something able to be bought and sold. 

To exemplify this concept of how money changes societal morals, consider the case of an Israeli child care center. The childcare center wanted to decrease the number of parents late to pick up their children, so it implemented a small fine for parents who arrived late for pickup. The result had the opposite effect than many predicted: more parents picked up their children late; the societal moral standard to not give the childcare workers a burden was gone. By implementing a monetary value on being late, it degraded the moral standard of being late. The childcare center reversed the decision after experiencing higher rates of late pickups, but even afterward, the childcare center continued to experience the high rates of late pickups. Once a monetary number is assigned to something, it can degrade the moral value of it. The same might happen to pregnancy if surrogacy was widespread: the intrinsic value of the bond between mother and baby would simply be defined by financial cost. The mother to child bond is something inexplicably precious. We see it when adopted children go looking for their biological mothers or mothers spend years looking for their lost child. This emotional bond is sacred; it’s something no one would put a moral utility measurement on. However, surrogacy risks breaking the mother to baby bond because something infinitely and intrinsically valued has changed to a monetary value.   

In the end, although Anderson Cooper’s case has been one of few high profile cases of celebrities taking the path of surrogacy, the surrogacy process is often used by many people who want biologically related children. On the surface, surrogacy may seem like a 9 month biological babysitter, but surrogacy brings along serious moral questions that need to be addressed. From (un)informed consent, exploitative contracts, the transaction of human beings, and the degradation of mother-baby bonds, surrogacy could have dangerous moral implications to human wellbeing and the core question of human value.

Antinatalism: The Tragedy of Being Born

A baby's hand holding a daffodil petal

On February 7th, Mumbai business executive Raphael Samuel made international headlines by indicating his intent to sue his parents for causing his life. Samuel explained that his parents’ decision to procreate was purely in their own self-interest and never accounted for the likelihood of suffering that he would later endure; just like how he might sue someone for causing him physical and mental distress, Samuel believes that his parents’ choice to give birth to him led to essentially the same result as if he had been kidnapped: he was forced to go somewhere against his will. Although he has been unable to find a lawyer to represent him and no judge has indicated a willingness to hear the case, Samuel insists that he is mostly concerned with making a public statement to underline his belief that procreation is not necessarily a good thing – and this is also why he plans to sue his parents for only one dollar.

Samuel affirms what’s known as ‘antinatalism,’ a philosophical position which contends that it is always, in principle, wrong to procreate. Though antinatalism can take a variety of forms, a common threadline amongst its defenders is not simply that an increased population overstresses the environment or that giving birth to people leads to problems for others down the line, but rather that it is bad for the person who is born that they are born – that is to say, antinatalism argues that birth is an inherent harm, not merely an instrumental one.

In the words of philosopher David Benatar, life is “permeated by badness” to a degree that irrevocably tips the scale against any possible assessment in its favor; despite being filled with pleasurable experiences and beautiful things, the world is also home to (literally) every kind of evil and pain – to force someone into such an arena against their will is to expose them to possible goods, but guaranteed harms. Of course, death is also a harm, so Benatar insists that it is only morally permissible to perpetuate a life, not to cause one to either begin or end.

Samuel is also concerned about the impact of humanity on other species; as he told the BBC, “There’s no point to humanity. So many people are suffering. If humanity is extinct, Earth and animals would be happier. They’ll certainly be better off. Also no human will then suffer. Human existence is totally pointless.” By 2050, Samuel’s home country of India alone is predicted to have nearly 1.7 billion residents, a threatening problem that has sparked national conversations about government policies to curtail overpopulation. In Samuel’s mind, antinatalism could serve a functional role to better manage the limited resources of an already-crowded globe.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published a paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” where he argued that rational agents acting in their own self-interest could easily deplete a shared resource of limited size (for it always makes sense to each individual to take a little bit more, despite the eventual burden placed on the system as a whole). Particularly as questions of climate change, sustainability, and overpopulation loom in the contemporary discourse, Hardin’s illustration of a hillside laid barren by nothing but rational choices resonates more than many would care to admit.

So, although it is unlikely that many will find Raphael Samuel’s nihilistic doctrine or David Benatar’s anti-birth philosophy attractive in itself, a second look at the antinatalist thesis might make more sense than people initially think – even if it might make for some awkward tension at your next family gathering.

Sexism in Birth Control Research

Changes in mood, pain, depression, increased or decreased libido, and weight gain are all common side effects for women who choose hormonal birth control. Recently, news broke that a study of hormonal injections as birth control for men was stopped earlier than planned after men experienced various adverse side effects – all of which women have been experiencing for decades when using hormonal birth control. Due to these effects, the study was terminated earlier than planned.

Continue reading “Sexism in Birth Control Research”