Human Cloning: An Atlantean Odyssey?

- Dr Munawar Ahmad Anees,

Editor-in-Chief, Periodica Islamica 22 Jalan Liku, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, MALAYSIA

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 5 (1995), 36-37.

In the amphitheater of biological evolution a faithful [sic] reenactment of the triadic axiom seems to have come full circle: from inanimate IBM clones through plant/animal clones we are ushering now into the age of human clones.

Jerry Hall and Robert Stillman's landmark experiment at George Washington University (EEIN 4: 9) was not a technological breakthrough. It was an edict on the "missing link." In it the biological metaphor reached its pinnacle. From now on, virtual reality - hitherto a monopoly of the microprocessors - would become an existent reality. The unknown has come to be known as a phantom of our phylogenetic past.

The identical twins are harbingers of the message that Nature is dexterous in the art and craft of cloning, but only as an exception to the rule. With human-assisted cloning, the pyramid is inverted: exception becomes the rule. And the big question is: who makes the rule?

We are not looking at the infant technique. We are peeping into the past, and the future. Only three decades ago, the so-called genetic code was discovered as a sequence of four bases across the helical structure of DNA. Today, through the Manhattan of Biology - the Human Genome Project - we are engaged in a gargantuan endeavour to conclude our genetic lithography. Within this short span of time, many a taboo stand obliterated: artificial insemination by donor (AID), in vitro fertilization (IVF) and, surrogate motherhood, to name just a few variations on the theme that are now commonplace.

It would seem as though Hall and Stillman's work is at the same crossroad as that of Watson and Crick when they delved into biochemical intricacies of DNA. Watson's allegedly trance-like sensation giving him clues to the DNA structure has an analogy with the candid statement that cloning may help in solving fertility problems. Shall we baptize human cloning as postmodern casuistry?

This saintly claim, this "modest" beginning forebodes the genesis of what is in store for the coming decades. Reproductive technology in its bigoted, domineering and, misogynist role is never regressive. It can only act with a propulsive habit. Obviously then, short of any doomsday scenario, cloning has no other discretion except to evolve into a technique of greater instrumental value and refined efficacy.

The march of self-sustaining technology goes on. With every little innocent-looking discovery it reminds us that the act of knowing is becoming contingent upon technology. Our knowledge-mediated behaviour is, thus, reactive rather than incipient. Perhaps, the defining and enabling role of technology is an expedient prelude to the postmodern condition.

Similarly, the moral and ethical impasse borne out of cloning has many layers. In the same way that making "test tube babies," accomplishes human reproduction without sexual intercourse, cloning replaces procreation with replication, giving a new twist to the scaffold around which we are accustomed to build the edifice of the human family.

Cloning reinforces the values of genetic determinism because it poses a threat to individuality and diversity. It forecloses genetic variability. It betrays the double-edged sword of genetic determinism by showing that it can act first at the stage of conception and then closely followed by a deterministic nurturing. Here the good old nature-nurture debate is in for a real shock! In no small measure, genetic determinism is an anti-thesis of moral and ethical choice.

In the biological yard sale or supermarket, one is already very familiar with shopping for commodities like blood, sperm, ovum, organs etc. Coming as a boost to consumer mentality cloning gives new meanings to human body as a merchandise. Instead of staying contented with the parts, it would acquire novel techniques to act as a wholesaler for packaging and marketing of made-to-order clones. In its instrumental garb, cloning may become an agent of commercial exploitation very much like the rent-a-womb syndrome that we suffer from. If success with the transgenic animals is any yardstick, then there is nothing whimsical about the idea of conducting business through a mail order catalogue of genetic cartography.

There is an inherent contradiction in human cloning: the very process is an exercise in dehumanization. By negating the inviolability of the human body, cloning is an intrusion into the primum mobile of the genetic ecosystem. Even in the primordial experiment, not much was accomplished without introducing synthetic elements. Virtual reality is getting gene deep! The vigour of this invasive procedure will only be enhanced by an awesome command of parallel computing power augmented by genetic cartography. There are little barriers to an explosive mix of computers and biology in the service of cloning.

Is our body only a bundle of genes, tissues and, organs? What is a person? A body? What is the essence of owning a body? What is that quintessence that gives us an intensely personal experience of bodily pleasures? In this Cartesian duality of body vs. person, how far one can go in denying existential identity vis-a-vis its proximity with the organic composition?

Cloning, once again, brings us back to these age-old questions, but in a new mold. Here cloning acts as a broker of genetic determinism for an entity that is yet to be composed of a body and a person. Here it is an ontological onslaught on the personhood. While cloning cannot replenish the nurturing component, it imposes a deterministic blueprint of bodily development.

At this point the much-contested debate on parental rights vs. fetal rights comes into focus. The issue does not rest alone with the basics of earliest stages of embryonic development but gets murkier - very much like laminated darkness of the uterus - when the long arm of in utero genetic manipulation takes its lead. For instance, we can be nothing but mute on the risk of inherited disorders and the ability to fight disease in a person born of a frozen-and-thawed cloned infinitum. Similarly, do parents have a right to deliberately alter the genetic endowment of a future child? Can she/he make a retroactive claim for damages inflicted through pre-birth genetic brokerage? Given our technology-contingent knowledge, moral and ethical reasoning and decision-making finds itself speechless.

True to the spirit of the Greek tragedy, the Hellenistic outlook described the body as a dungeon of the soul. The Christian reflection elevated it to the status of a sanctuary but repudiated bodily pleasures in favour of things spiritual: celibacy is a classic albeit extreme example. Does cloning then represent an embodiment of cognitive vestige from the Hellenistic culture that blends with the onus of the "original sin?" Is it the malevolence of the rebellious? Is it the vengeful self-perpetuation of a defiant? However comforting the Papal denunciation of cloning may be in the interest of reverence of the body, the fact remains that the Western science, even in the postmodern age, is not free from its cultural embedding. The insurgence goes on.

In the Muslim consciousness, free from the inherent guilt, the body is, in a sense, an axis mundi. It is the point where the worlds, corporeal and spiritual, meet. It is the pivot around which one's world revolves. In spite of a synoptic perspective on the human body, there is neither an idea of "rights" over one's body nor an "ownership" of the body in the Western sense of the words. For a Muslim, the same as New Testament Christian theology, the body is on trust from God. It is neither a solely owned property nor a disposable commodity. Hence the interdiction against suicide. The temporary possession of the body does not imply its ownership by the possessor. The ritual prayer one recites at the death of a person comes as a vivid reminder: "He alone grants life and deals death; and unto Him you all must return," (Qur'an 10:56).

Notwithstanding some Muslims whose mislaid zeal appears to portray the Qur'an as a book of human embryology, there are many verses that point to a normative (emphasis added) guidance on human creation. Let us read a sample: "We have created [every one of] you out of dust, then out of a drop of sperm, then out of a germ- cell, then out of an embryonic lump complete [in itself] and yet incomplete, so that We might make [your origin] clear unto you. And whatever We will [to be born] We cause to rest in the [mother's] wombs for a term set [by Us]," (Qur'an 22:5). Another verse reads: "Was he not once a [mere] drop of a sperm that had been split, and thereafter became a germ-cell - whereupon He created and formed [it] in accordance with what [it] was meant to be, and fashioned out of it the two sexes, the male and the female?" (Qur'an 75:37- 8).

The Quranic paradigm of human creation, it would appear, preempts any move towards cloning. From the moment of birth to the point of death, the entire cycle is a Divine act. The humankind is simply an agent, a trustee of God and the body a trust from God. As such, any replication is simply a redundant act. In the absence of a Quranic axiom on body as property, genetic interference in the germ-line would appear to be quite unethical.

On the utilitarian side of the corporeal possession, Muslims are exhorted - as a ritualistic obligation - to keep this gift given on trust in good shape. Given the case where cloning is an asexual experience (in the sense that it is performed within the legal marital bonds; no extramarital genetic boundaries are crossed and; the genetic endowment is only from the spouses), its prohibition must be judged against Islamic ethical norms. For instance, unlike Catholic doctrine, Islam sanctions therapeutic abortion in case of genuine clinical condition i.e., impending danger to mother's life. Would cloning offer an analogous condition? We can think of only one possible scenario: prenatal corrective genetic intervention, provided there exists a clinical justification. Our reasoning for this assertion takes root in the body-as-a-trust paradigm and the ensuring responsibility for its care as the duty of every woman and man.

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