Apr 12th 2001
From The Economist print edition 
STEP forward to a dinner party in 2025. Your hostess warns you that
the tomatoes are the new cholesterol-reducing ones. Your host
grumbles that he eats only organic food. Your gay neighbour tells you
how his clone (should you think of it as his son or his brother?) is
doing at school. Somebody mentions the amount that the Smiths have
paid to make sure their next daughter has blue eyes. Wouldn’t it have
been better spent on making her musical? Somebody jokes about that
couple who could have had a Margaret Thatcher clone but chose a Bill
Clinton instead. On the drive back, the headlines are about attempts
to raise the retirement age to 95.

This is not a prophecy, merely a set of possibilities that the
revolution in genetic science might throw up. Would such a world
horrify you, inspire you, liberate you, disgust you? Perhaps a
combination of all these emotions. Genetic science does not pose just
the “normal” questions of how we should regulate any new technology.
It also presents ethical and political challenges, many of which cut
across the traditional barriers of liberalism and conservatism. If
America is a guide (see article), then most politicians are
floundering to understand what may be just around the corner.

The debates about genetic science tend to be ones where the extremes
offer the only consistent positions. The Roman Catholic church, for
instance, tends to oppose most reproductive meddling for humans,
including cloning. On the other side, libertarians, the biotechnology
industry and most scientists take the opposite tack: that people
should be as free as possible to choose what they do with their
bodies and (by extension) those of their children.

The Economist, by and large, has been on the side of science. In
agriculture, we have defended genetically modified food as a source
of cheaper, better nutrition. In human health, biotechnology offers
two magical things—the chance to tailor a medicine to a specific
person, and the chance to prevent some diseases before they occur. On
the whole, it has seemed wrong to deny people the opportunity to try
these things. A laisser-faire attitude towards IVF has, for instance,
already helped countless childless couples have children. 

But scepticism, not just of ideological creeds but also of
technology, is also part of liberalism. It is not illiberal to draw a
few lines around a technology that so many people feel queasy about
and about which so little is yet known. And it is not illiberal to
worry about the rights of the children whom parents may be tempted to
try to perfect.

Begin with two easy decisions. First, every country should have some
equivalent of Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
(HFEA)—a permanent independent regulatory overseer, composed of
scientists and ethicists, that reports to the health ministry. This
may involve a little more red tape. But it forces scientists to
justify what they are doing as “necessary and desirable” every time
they leap ahead. And it is surely preferable to the American system,
where the government’s only hold over the industry comes through
dictating how public money can be spent. Voters will not be happy
that their government did nothing to stop something horrible
happening in a laboratory just because it happened in a
private-sector one. 

Next, those authorities should impose a moratorium on reproductive
human cloning.This is not a matter of ethical choice but, as with our
opposition to xenotransplantation (putting animal organs into
humans), of safety. In principle, human cloning is easy: find a donor
egg, suck out the nucleus, inject a cell from the person whom you
wish to copy, encourage it to start growing. In practice there are
big technical hurdles. Only around one in 20 animal clones survives;
many come with terrible deformities. That sort of success rate is
tolerable with flies and sheep; not so with humans. 

And now, the hard part
That still leaves the much harder ethical question of whether
developments like cloning (even if safe) and genetic modification are
welcome. Here, the correct starting-point is that it is up to the
opponents of cloning to make their case, not its protagonists: the
burden of proof should lie with those who would regulate or ban.
However, this approach should not imply that this burden is
impossible to meet.

The case for most sorts of human cloning is simple and similar to
IVF: it will allow people who cannot reproduce to do so. Critics
argue that enormous numbers of clones would pose worries about the
strength of humans as a species; sex, they say, is there for a
purpose. Yet it would take millions of clones to have much impact on
the health of a species that already numbers six billion. It is also
unlikely that many couples will choose cloning over old-fashioned
procreation. Indeed, current prejudice already suggests that many
will believe clones to be somehow inferior to other humans.

The more general fear is that cloning represents a form of despotism
over future generations. Cloning will not produce a perfect copy. A
clone will merely have the same genes as his father or mother.
Produced in a different womb and growing up at a different time than
his forebear, a clone may (we don’t know) be much less similar than
an identical twin. Cloning will create individuals. Yet that fact
alone does not mean that all sorts of cloning would be welcome from
the child’s point of view. Who would want to be that Margaret
Thatcher clone? In general, the further cloning veers from being
simply a treatment for the otherwise infertile towards being an
attempt to stamp predetermined characteristics on your offspring, the
more legitimate the fears about parental despotism look—and the more
regulators should be tempted to intervene. 

The same sort of line—between (welcome) medical treatment and
(inadvisable) parental perfectionism—should also be drawn in the
separate and more complicated field of pre-birth genetic
modification. Parents can already select which particular embryos to
implant, so as to screen out specific diseases. In the longer run,
modifying those embryos offers a chance to practise a form of benign
eugenics: for parents to eliminate undesirable traits from their
children. So long as those traits are medical conditions, this seems
acceptable: why deprive children of the chance to live without
Parkinson’s disease? But the queasy feeling takes over once parents
start eradicating character traits such as homosexuality, or actively
selecting good genes—athleticism, tallness, a high IQ.

Of course, parents have always tried to determine their children’s
genes. Aristotle advised men to tie off their left testicle to
guarantee a male child. But genetically modifying embryos surely
marks a new departure—a potential loss of dignity and of autonomy. A
child who is required to take up piano lessons by his parents can
later give them up; he cannot change the fact that they made him ten
inches taller.

While setting out such fears, it is vital to recognise both that they
will be hard to translate into regulations and, more important, that
the fears may prove misplaced. By any reasonable measure, the new
eugenics, based on individual choice, represents a far more
benevolent regime than the old racist sort. Governments should be
open-minded about these developments, but cautious and questioning as
well. Society needs to beware scientific hubris on one side and blind
fear of the new on the other. As ever, scepticism and pragmatism, the
great liberal virtues, will be the best guide.