Posts Tagged ‘reproductive cloning’

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To be cloned without consent

Monday, 19 May, 2008

You may notice that on my “About the Author” page, I have said that I approve of “the use of reproductive cloning, even without the consent of the person being cloned”. I think that stance may need some clarification. After all, isn’t your genome your property? Actually, I don’t think it is.

You only own the current representation of your genome – your body. Your body is yours, and you should be able to control it in any way you want (meaning, you should be able to prevent people from taking genetic samples from your body). That is akin to owning a particular book, or DVD. But you don’t actually own the rights to that book or DVD – buying a copy of the textbook Gray’s Anatomy or the DVD boxset for Grey’s Anatomy only gives you control over that copy, but the rights to make additional copies is not yours.

Now, understandably we humans do have the right to make additional copies of our genes without having to pay royalties (nonetheless, over a fifth of the human genome is patented in the US, but these patents are not recognised internationally). After all, it is a fundamental human right that we can choose to reproduce – to have children – and that involves making a copy of some of our genes and some of our partner’s genes. Technically, a child is an unauthorised copy of patented material, so could theoretically be an infringement. However, it is widely considered unfair for some human genes to be owned by a private company. I agree – the human genome should not belong to anyone. It should be available to all. Thus, the comparison between a genome and a book works best when considering public domain books, such as the King James Bible, which are not owned by anyone.

Most would accept the idea that the human genome – the consensus sequence of our species – should not belong to any one person. But, what of my genome in particular – surely that can be argued to be mine under an extension of my body? I don’t think so.

Consider the case of identical twins. This is a special case of two bodies, but a single genetic constitution. It is already accepted that one twin can reproduce – copy some of their genes – without the consent of the other twin. Genetically, however, the twin would not be the uncle or aunt of the child, but also their genetic parent. But we do not scream about this act violating a person’s control over their own reproduction.

Of course, this only makes sense; all of our genes, unique mutations aside, come from our parents, and we do not morally require their consent to copy their genes. So, if one twin wanted to clone themselves – copy all of their genes instead of just some – would there be any grounds for complaint by the other twin (general qualms about cloning aside)? I’d say not, because there can’t be any significant distinction between passing on some genetic material to a child and passing on all (or almost all) genetic material to a child. Therefore, it could hardly be said that the right to one’s own body extends to the right over one’s genetic makeup, as such an interpretation would run contrary to how we treat natural reproduction, especially with regards to identical twins.

To summarise:

  • An individual does not own their genetic code – if they did, identical twins would have to share their control over their reproduction (and they do not, under our current legal system)
  • An individual’s genetic code is not owned by anyone else – if they did, that individual would not have reproductive freedom (and they do have this freedom, under our current legal system)
  • Nobody owns the genetic code of anyone – therefore cloning does not require anyone’s consent (though I admit it would be kind to ask first)

The fact of the matter is that you have control over yourself and your identity, but not your genetic code. The human genome is a commons for all humanity, and each and every version of it belongs to nobody. The clone of you would not be you, nor is cloning doing anything to you or your rights, and so I see no grounds for complaint if you were to be cloned without your consent (or if your cloned cloned themselves again without asking you, which amounts to the same thing anyway).

However, this does depend how your genetic material was obtained. An agreement will likely exist ensuring that your genetic data cannot be redistributed without your permission. However, this will not apply to to genetic material left in the environment. After all, we do not need a person’s consent to clean up their hair or skin left around the house or at work. It wouldn’t enforceable even if we did. So there is the real potential for somebody to obtain your genetic material and reproduce it.

But don’t worry – there isn’t much point to surreptitious cloning, because I’m sure that those who can afford cloning, but are to unkind to ask, will not want a copy of your genome seeing as they could likely afford something better.