The exciting technology of human cloning, and its as-yet unknown impacts on the world, has captured the imagination of the general public through popular films, books, and television programmes. Animal reproductive cloning became a reality on 5 July 1996 when Dolly the sheep was born in Midlothian, Scotland. She was the first mammal ever to be successfully cloned from a mature cell. Yet by the time she was euthanised in 2003, aged just six, Dolly had developed both arthritis and severe lung problems. Her life represented what was for many a huge step forward in modern science and the power of cell manipulation, however for others the genetic modification used to create her was a chilling reflection of the morally questionable ideals of biotechnological eugenics. To control other human lives in this way would be, some say, reminiscent of concepts endorsed by the likes of the Nazi Party.
If ever implemented, even on a relatively small scale, human genetic modification and cloning could have exponentially influential effects on future generations of the human race. Adopted by UNESCO in 1997, the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights was the first international instrument to deal directly with the relationship between human rights and human genetic modification. Strongly advocating against human cloning due to its alleged impact on human dignity, the declaration stands alongside the likes of the Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and the Dignity of Human Being with Regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine, which also claim that human dignity could suffer under practices such as cloning. In 1998, the World Health Organisation stated that cloning for the replication of human individuals was unethical and contrary to human integrity and dignity. Why exactly human dignity would suffer as a result of such artificial cloning is hard to accurately pin down, and no accepted specific set of reasons stand undisputed.
Perhaps the type of cloning will influence whose rights of life, dignity, autonomous identity, and individual freedom are impacted. Cloning occurs naturally in some bacteria through asexual reproduction, but the artificial production of genetically identical biological entities can be achieved in three different ways: gene cloning produces copies of segments of DNA, whereas reproductive and therapeutic cloning produces whole pieces of tissue, (and in the case of reproductive cloning, whole animals). Many member states agree that reproductive cloning should be banned. Respecting human dignity is the most often cited reason. Honduras proposed that human cloning is necessarily incompatible with the essential task of the protection of human rights. Yet Timothy Caulfield’s 2003 observation that it is simply general cultural anxiety of the unknown which is stopping cloning progress, and that policy makers are in a sense falsely advertising this as a respect for human dignity, is certainly interesting food for thought in the debate.
One of the biggest technical barriers to cloning is its inefficiency. Many hold that the expensive process could better direct its funds towards supporting the human rights of already living humans who lack access to education and clean water. Somatic cell extraction for the purposes of reproductive cloning was in its infancy a highly difficult process. The researchers who created Dolly the sheep had made two hundred and seventy six previous attempts. Before her, genetically identical cows, chicken, and mice had been created by the easier process of embryo splitting. But two years after Dolly’s birth, a team of Japanese researchers managed to clone eight calves from a single adult cow, although only four of the eight survived. In addition to this, a few controversial claims of successful human clones have been made, all without supporting evidence.
The concept of therapeutic cloning, which is creating a cloned embryo, has been the centre of similar debates. Whilst many feel morally opposed to reproductive human cloning, the potential disease eradicating benefits of therapeutic cloning and claims that what is used for this research is not yet a human being for this research have won the yet unproven process more supporters. Therapeutic cloning uses embryonic stem cells to experimentally replace different types of injured or diseased tissue, and observations of mutations the cells sometimes form, can help scientists gain a better understanding of how certain cancers come into being. Companies like Stemaid claim to be able to treat a wide variety of conditions with stem cell technology; they even recommend stem cell injections into the brain to treat certain cases of autism. Human stem cells are widely accepted as a theoretical way to test new therapeutic drugs, but the debate of whether or not embryos can be said to be people is a separate issue.
Access to human cloning has even been included by some in the right to reproductive freedom, but if human clones suffered from the same health issues as Dolly, such as premature ageing and immune system difficulties, the process of human cloning might even be argued to be detrimental to the human rights of reproductive clones themselves. Overall there is no clear cut answer as to whether or not cloning infringes on human rights, and the various different types of cloning each have positives and negatives. The meaning of human cloning is often misunderstood, and “genetically identical” mammals would never necessarily be altogether identical, as some important genes are also present in the mitochondria of the egg-cell. This may help get around individual worries of autonomy and individuality. As opposition to human cloning remains strong, progress is unlikely to be made in the field of reproductive cloning any time soon. Stem cell research however, depending on the country it is conducted in, may be a different story.
To learn more about the topic of cloning in relation to human rights, Carmel Shalev’s paper is a highly useful starting point. To read about the history of human rights in general, Amnesty International has a broad history of Human Rights Law and its enforcement.