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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Yes, the cloning debate is over: we must allow therapeutic cloning

Since the cloning of Dolly in 1996, reported in Nature early the following year, we have lived in an environment of moral panic arising from the theoretical prospect of human cloning. The implications of that prospect have been thrashed out by philosophers, ethicists, and others ever since, and a clear outcome has emerged in the debate: subject to safety considerations, there is no reason to ban any form of human cloning.

It must be conceded that there is currently no obvious way to overcome the technological difficulties with reproductive cloning - at least not without conducting experiments that would clearly be unethical. Thus, there is no prospect of human reproductive cloning being used, for now, so long as ordinary ethical guidelines are followed by researchers. We have to accept that an impasse, whether temporary or permanent, has been reached with human reproductive cloning.

At the same time, there is no intellectually sound basis for criminalisation of the technique - all that is required is vigorous enforcement of ordinary research ethics. Furthermore, there is no rational basis for any restrictions on human cloning that is not intended for reproduction. I.e. there is no rational basis to oppose the creation of human embryos by somatic cell nuclear transfer for directly therapeutic applications (if these become available) or for biomedical research that might lead to such applications. (By convention, both of these are lumped under the expression "therapeutic cloning".)

The intellectual debate about human cloning is over, and the bioluddites lost. People like John Harris have debunked their arguments again and again. I've done some useful work on this myself.

However, you'd never know it from the political outcomes. Countries such as my own much-loved Australia continue to have draconian criminal penalties for reproductive cloning on their statute books, even though this is totally unnecessary while the technique is not safe and totally deplorable if the technique ever does become a safe reproductive option. Worse still, bans on human cloning are extended to cloning for the purposes of research or therapy. This is a nonsensical situation that we've reached. The cloning issue has given the forces of unreason a huge political success, one that creates a dangerous precedent for many other areas of our lives. In this area, there has been a political rejection of the Millian consensus that served us so well - the idea that the state should not be imposing contestable (and in this case irrational) moral views, even popular ones. This is a truly disturbing development in the public life of Western democracies such as Australia, and anyone who cares about it should be protesting vehemently.

I see that Dennis Shanahan, the Australian's political editor, has an op.ed. piece this morning claiming that the cloning debate is over in Australia because of the parliamentary ban long since enacted. Shanahan asserts that the possibility of allowing human cloning for therapeutic or research purposes should be dismissed, despite the contrary recommendations of an important government report that was issued in December last year.

Shanahan's line must be contested. Yes, a political debate in Australia was indeed won by the bioluddites a couple of years ago, but they have lost the wider intellectual debate. I don't see how those of us who believe in both liberty and the melioristic possibilities of science can ever rest comfortably until the values of freedom and reason have been restored to public policy in Australia and elsewhere. I, for one, intend to use whatever powers I have to keep the candle of freedom and reason burning.

I hereby dissent, and I call on you to join me. We must allow therapeutic cloning.

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