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Kant's imperative versus the benefit of cloning embryos

Ethics / Following the British Ministry of Health's recommendation to allow cloning of fetal cells * Dr. Ovadia Ezra from the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University opposes cloning and considers it a disaster

By Ovadia Ezra

More than three years after the announcement of the first genetic cloning, that of Dolly the sheep, the scientific community has yet to formulate a clear position regarding the legitimacy of using this technology to clone humans as well. Opinions among scientists are divided mainly on the question of whether the application of technology to create duplicate humans should be allowed, and less on the question of whether research should be continued and such an ability developed. In this issue, there is widespread agreement that scientists should be allowed to continue their research activities, in the name of the freedom of science.

The supporters of the continuation of the study claim that to limit this freedom, weighty value arguments are required, or proof of actual damage caused as a result of this activity. The announcement published yesterday by the Director General of the British Ministry of Health, according to which the Ministry recommends allowing the cloning of fetal cells for research purposes, is a leap forward in the ethical and public debate on this issue.

Surprisingly, even in the discussion of the more complicated issue, whether to allow the genetic duplication of humans, the voices supporting the granting of a permit to implement this technology are increasing. The main reasoning of the supporters of human cloning is that for some people, especially those with infertility, cloning is the only way to produce offspring. Another weighty reasoning is that human cloning will make it easier to create organs for transplantation. Prohibiting the benefit inherent in cloning from the human race, supporters claim, requires convincing reasoning, such as preventing significant damage to society or humanity, or a moral reason.

However, proof of damage is always possible only in retrospect, and usually only from a long-term perspective. And since this is a unique case where we have no previous experience, we cannot even speculate on its results. Therefore, utilitarian reasoning cannot be used to justify any kind of restriction - either on the continuation of the research or on the possible application of technology for the purpose of creating a cloned human.

It remains to examine the value aspects of human reproduction. When it is argued that the duplication of human beings should be allowed to allow childless couples to exercise their right to parenthood, one of the meanings of allowing this action is that we artificially and voluntarily create a person, in order to solve a concrete and painful problem of exercising rights, or satisfying needs. Here a heavy moral question arises: Is it permissible to create a person in order to achieve some kind of purpose? This may result in the use of a person as a means to achieve some goal. Such an action would constitute a violation of one of the strongest moral imperatives: Kant's categorical imperative in his version of humanity, which requires man to always see his humanity and that of others not only as a means but also as an end.

There is a serious concern that when we create humans for some purpose we may see them as mere means, and not as ends in themselves. Such a concern can be used as a reason for the demand to ban the application of the technology of replication for the purpose of creating human beings, despite the heavy price of this ban from the point of view of childless people.

Deciding on the issue of the use of technology to create humans also has an impact on the discussion of the degree of legitimacy of continuing the research to produce such technology, since denying the use of the technology can be a reason to demand the cessation of the research as well. This reason is sometimes called the "technological imperative", which is a position that assumes that when the technology exists to produce something - even if it is a monster - there is no force that can prevent its production. This is an almost deterministic move that the creator of the machine can no longer control. This term first came up in the context of the hydrogen bomb. The opponents of a nuclear arms race demanded the cessation of research, fearing that it would lead to the uncontrolled production of means of destruction that would threaten the continued existence of the human race. As I recall, the research continued and the bomb was manufactured. The power of the technological imperative is so strong that the acquisition of the technology is perceived as a point of no return leading to its use. If we oppose the product, and in our case to allow the reproduction of humans, we must also stop the creation of the possibility for this, and therefore we must also demand that the research leading to the reproduction of human beings be stopped.

Fear of unknown results of a technological process caused, for example, the Roslin Institute in Scotland, the pioneer of cloning, to stop the development of pigs whose organs will be transplanted into humans. The concern here is that diseases that have so far only affected pigs will be transferred to humans. Although it is not certain that this will happen, the fear was enough to withdraw from the study. The dangers, especially the values, inherent in cloning are immeasurably greater than the danger that led to the decision of the Roslin Institute. The fear of these dangers should lead to a decision against allowing human cloning research.

However, the ability to prevent cloning is exclusively in the hands of the scientific community. Legislation will not be able to encompass the whole world, and there will always remain a remote island where cloning can be carried out (this happened, for example, in Australia. When it prohibited the use of in vitro fertilization technology, the doctors traveled to neighboring Singapore and performed the fertilization there). Only the scientific community can fight the phenomenon, by not cooperating with scientists who will deal with cloning. However, the fear is that this community, as having an interest, will adopt the position of the British Ministry of Health, according to which "the benefit of cloning exceeds all ethical considerations". In the place where considerations of utility prevail over all ethical considerations, the disasters lie ahead.

Dr. Ovadia Ezra teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University
{Appeared in Haaretz newspaper, 17/8/2000}

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