In the same year that the novel Boys from Brazil (1976) set off public concerns of human cloning, another controversial scientific breakthrough was in its infancy.  Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), now widely accepted, was a revolution in the science of medical imaging.  It has helped doctors more accurately diagnose diseases such as breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, and coronary shunts, leading to early treatment of patients and increased survival rates – all without ionizing radiation.[1]  Writer Tom Philbin listed the MRI as one of the hundred greatest inventions in history.[2]  Five scientists who helped develop the technology were awarded Nobel Prizes for their work.  In its early years, however, it was known as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or NMRI.  The dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power plant accidents led to negative public associations of the word ‘nuclear,’ causing some to question NMRI’s safety.  Some scientists argued that despite public confusion, the name should not be changed since public concerns were irrational and the word ‘nuclear’ was used to describe the prior uses of the technology to study atomic nuclei.[3]  Despite the opinions of these scientists, the NMR Commission of the American College of Radiology voted to drop the word ‘nuclear’ in 1983 stating that “the deletion of ‘Nuclear’ may be helpful in eliminating undesirable connotations in the mind of the public.”[4]  MRI has been widely accepted by the public and heralded ever since.

As was the case with the initial debates over NMRI, cloning supporters have often lamented the general public’s view of cloning.  Proponents of cloning argue that the public has misconstrued cloning, specifically misunderstanding the relationship among nature, nurture, and human identity.  Many argue that because of these misunderstandings, the cloning debate should be left to scientists and experts, not to the public.  One such opponent to public engagement in the cloning discourse, Richard Dawkins, criticizes a member of a cloning debate panel for arguing that clones would lack individuality.  When commenting on the qualifications necessary to be included in the cloning debate, he asks, “Isn’t a certain minimal qualification in the IQ department desirable too?”[5]  In an MSNBC opinion article, bioethicist Arthur Caplan states that “the [public’s] push for a total ban on cloning rests on several myths and far-fetched scenarios that have gained way too much currency in Congress, the Oval office and in the media.”[6]  Caplan refers to the public’s erroneous perception that cloning could be used to recreate ‘Hitlers’ or ‘Husseins’.  Because of this misguided view of cloning, Caplan argues that the public’s “myths should not be the basis of public policy.”[7]  Experts such as Dawkins and Caplan are correct in stating that the public sometimes misunderstands cloning.  However, the cloning technology ultimately would be used by the public, not solely by cloning experts.  Public misunderstandings could motivate the public to clone, even for irrational or unscientific reasons.  Because the ethical debate related to cloning is not solely a scientific one, but rather one that entails a discussion of the motives to clone and the ethical implications that arise from such motivations, public concerns should be considered in the cloning ethical debate.

As Dawkins and Caplan suggest, confusion over the role of nature and nurture in shaping human identity has led the public to place too much weight on genetic determinism.  Media representations of cloning have convinced the public that cloning would create a copy of an individual that would be completely identical, both genetically and behaviorally.8 A study conducted between 1985 and 1995 reported that 73% of American magazine articles had statements that attributed human traits to both environment and genome, 27% to the genome only , and 0% to the environment only.[8]  This study indicates that while most of the media attribute human traits to a mixture of nature and nurture, there is a definite lean towards genetic determinism. This tendency to overestimate the role of genetics in human development persists into the 21st century through contemporary television advertisements.9,10  A recent Coca-Cola advertisement portrays a man playing videogames who uses multiple clones of himself (who are of same age and physical appearance) to spend time with his girlfriend without interrupting his play.[9]  A Seattle Mariners advertisement portrays baseball player Ken Griffey, Jr. playing every single position simultaneously, with the opposing manager remarking: “I’m dead set against this human cloning thing.”[10]  While obviously meant to be humorous, media portrayal of reproductive cloning perpetuates the idea that identical copies of individuals can be made through cloning.[11]

Although the public may possess an incorrect view of cloning that places too much weight on genetic determinism, it is not the nature of the final clone product, but rather the motives for cloning that are the source of the public debate.  Society emphasizes motive when ethically judging an action.  For instance, while murder is seen as ethically unacceptable, killing an attacker in self-defense can be considered justifiable under certain circumstances, even though the end result is the same.  For example, a murder charge against a Sacramento resident was dropped after a surveillance camera proved that he was acting in self-defense.[12]  Similarly, motives are also important in determining the ethics of new reproductive technologies.  Just as courts consider motive when determining whether a killing is justified (or should be classified as murder, manslaughter, etc.), national bioethics committees have determined that certain reproductive technologies are ethical, but only under certain circumstances for specific motives.  In a 1999 report, the Ethics Committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine stated that Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) was not acceptable when used for non-medical reasons, and only permissible if used to prevent genetic diseases.  The committee saw the motivations for PGD’s non-medical uses as ethically suspect, stating: “The distinction between medical needs and non-medical desires is particularly relevant.”[13]  They make the argument that individuals using PGD for non-medical reasons are motivated by gender or trait bias, whereas those using PGD for medical reasons simply want to improve the health of their offspring, a more ethically acceptable motivation.  The public’s confusion over the characteristics of the cloning end product is frequently cited when arguments are made in favor of limiting the public’s role in the cloning debate.  Dawkins chastises an individual whom he believes fails to understand the role of nature vs. nurture in the development of a clone:

The representative of a rival religion…was frankly confused.  He voiced the common fear that a human clone would lack individuality.  It would not be a whole, separate human being but a mere soulless automaton.  When I warned him that his words might be offensive to identical twins, he said that identical twins were quite a different case.  Why?  Because they occur naturally, rather than under artificial conditions.  Once again, no disagreement about that.    But weren’t we talking about ‘individuality’ and whether clones are ‘whole human beings’ or soulless automata?  How does the ‘naturalness’ of their birth bear upon that question?[14]

Dawkins saw the religious leader as ‘confused,’ but the leader was correct in pointing out the distinction between clones and twins, although ‘naturalness’ might not have been the best term.  To answer Dawkin’s question, the naturalness of twins is a reference to their randomness: no one can really predict or choose to give birth to twins.  Thus, the motives for giving birth to twins are simply to have children.  In contrast, except in cases in which cloning is used solely for fertility reasons, reproductive cloning is driven by the desire to have an identical genetic copy of a living individual: if not, another child could have been produced much more easily through natural pregnancy.

Recent news reports have highlighted the motive for cloning.  In 2002 Clonaid announced that they had successfully cloned the dead children of two different parents.[15]  Although later shown to have been fabricated, the story was controversial because of the fear that children would become manufactured for a particular use, in this case as an exact replacement for a specific dead child.  Similar concerns have been discussed in ethical debates about genome ownership, and whether Albert Einstein or Michael Jordan would have to consent before being cloned.[16]  In this case, an individual would clone a famous person in order to have a child that they believe would achieve success in a given field.  The concern is not over whether the clone of Michael Jordan or a deceased relative would become an exact copy of their respective parents (they probably wouldn’t), but rather the motives behind choosing to clone.  Identical twins come into the world with a clean slate – no person with their same genome has existed in the world before, so no expectations are given.  In contrast, a person is cloned with the idea that they will become like their genetic parent, and the parent would rear the child with this expectation.  This burden of expectation is already placed on the naturally-born children of successful parents, who are sometimes expected to follow in their parents’ footsteps.  The burden would only be magnified for a genetically identical cloned child.  It is this burden, along with the fear of child manufacturing that has driven the cloning ethical debate.  As experts on their own motivations, the public should be invited to participate in discussions on cloning policy.

Even if ethical concerns about child manufacturing are deemed insufficient to override what some believe is a ‘right to reproduction,’ the public should still participate in the cloning debate, which is not limited to discussions about the legality of cloning, but which would also, inevitably, entail a discussion of whether or not the government should expend taxpayer money in support of cloning research.  For instance, policy makers could decide to legalize cloning but prohibit federal funding for cloning because of ethical concerns from the public.  This scenario resembles the federal policy on abortion.  The federal government has held that abortion (in the first trimester, at least) is legal, mainly by the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling overturning a Texas state law criminalizing abortion.   However, the federal government has also held the policy that federal funding should not be used to pay for abortions.  In 1976, the House of Representatives passed the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited federal funding of abortion.  Federal funding of abortions was also a major issue in the healthcare reform debates in 2009 and 2010.  The Affordable Health Care for America Act of 2009 passed the House largely because of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which prohibited federal funding of abortions.  President Barack Obama also signed Executive Order 13535 in 2010, which reaffirmed the Executive Branch’s policy that federal funds would not be used for abortions.  The abortion case study highlights the distinction between determining the legality of a procedure and determining whether that procedure should qualify for federal funding.  The rationale for the abortion policy is that although the government has held that the ‘right of privacy’ protects a mother’s right to abort her fetus, it acknowledges that public concern about the ethics of abortion is significant.

In the United States, public funds have long been used to support scientific and technological research.  The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are independent federal organizations that use taxpayer money to fund medical and scientific research.  Since federal research grants are mostly taxpayer funded and determined by Congress, the public has held an important role in determining what types of research acquire funding.  In 1995 the U.S. Congress banned the funding of embryonic stem cell research, over ethical concerns of the destruction of embryos.[17]  Public input could help determine if cloning research would receive federal funding.  However misguided the public may be, in a democracy the public has the right to participate in the ethical debate to assert their rightful control over taxpayer funding of cloning research.

Proponents of cloning might argue that public influence in the cloning debate could lead to a ban on funding for cloning research, which would stifle scientific advancement; however such input could actually lead to scientific innovation.   In the stem cell research debate, moral concerns over the destruction of embryonic stem cells led President George W. Bush to push for a ban of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in 2001.  Many scientists at the time saw the ban as an impediment of scientific research.  However, in 2007 Science Magazine reported that multiple researchers had successfully created pluripotent cells from skin cell lines.[18]  This technique can allow scientists to conduct stem cell research without the ethical concerns of destroying embryonic stem cells. Had public concern not been heeded, it is unlikely that scientists would have attempted to develop methods to form stem cells from sources other than embryos, and much of the public would have remained resistant to it.    In this case, public debate allowed the formation of an improved technology that was more universally accepted, likely increasing the funding prospects for this form of research.

Despite concern on the part of prominent bioethicists that religious leaders and the public are muddying the cloning ethical debate, the public has a crucial role in policy discussions.  Although the public may confuse nature and nurture and not understand the details of cloning, their incorrect views will allow policy makers to recognize motivations for cloning and to attempt to solve ethical problems arising from them.  From this information, policy makers could decide to permit cloning in certain cases where motivations are less controversial, for example to create a genetically related child for an infertile couple.  Beyond determining the legality of cloning, the public has the right to influence the appropriations of their tax dollars, and their input could help lawmakers decide whether to fund cloning research with federal money.

Those in favor of limiting debate to ‘scientific experts’ fear an irrational public getting in the way of scientific progress.  This may not be the case, however.  Even though a majority of the public currently opposes cloning, discussions could perhaps yield recommendations that will make reproductive cloning more ethically acceptable, increasing the likelihood of federal funding for cloning research.  Recent trends also suggest that the public may be warming to the idea of cloning.  Widespread advertisements like the ones for Coca-Cola and the Seattle Mariners indicate that the public may not find cloning as morally repugnant as previously thought.  A moratorium on cloning could be imposed, allowing the public to gradually accept cloning as the future of reproductive technology.  As we argue the merits of allowing public involvement in the debate over cloning, we should remember the early days of the MRI.  Despite irrational public fears about MRI safety, scientists heeding public concerns were able to allay fears and gain widespread support for the new imaging technology, leading to improved diagnoses and the saving of countless lives.  We shall see if the scientific and bioethics community will choose such a path for the cloning debate.



Works Cited

Caplan, A. Cloning Ethics: Separating the Science from Fiction. MSNBC, 14 Dec. 2003. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.

Cimons, M., & L. Birmingham. “Scientists Appeal to Revoke Funding Ban on Embryo Research.”  Nature Medicine. 5 (1999): 6.

CNN. Clonaid Claims It Has Cloned A Baby Girl. CNN Breaking News, 27 Dec. 2002. Web. 27 March 2010.

Condit, C. et al. “An Exploratory Study of the Impact of News Headlines on Genetic Determinism.” Science Communication. 22 (2001): 379-395.

Dawkins, R. “What’s Wrong With Cloning?” Clones and Clones: Facts and Fantasies About Human Cloning. Ed. Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein. New York: W.H. Norton & Company, 1999. 54-66.

The Ethics Committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.  “Sex Selection and Preimplantation Diagnosis.”  Fertility and Sterility. 72.4 (1999): 595-598.

Furillo, A. Murder Charge Dropped in Fatal Oak Park Shooting. The Sacramento Bee, 2 Apr. 2010. Web. 8 Apr. 2010. <>

Goldberg, S. “MRIs and the Perception of Risk.” American Journal of Law & Medicine. 33 (2007): 229-237.

Herrnstein, R. & C. Murray. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Kass, L. “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” The New Republic. 1997: 17-26. Philbin, T. “The 100 Greatest Inventions of All Time: A Ranking of Past and Present.” New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2003.

Smith, F. “The Value of NMR Imaging in Pediatric Practice: A Preliminary Report.” Pediatric Radiology. 13 (1983): 141-147.

Vogel, G. & C. Holden. “Field Leaps Forward with New Stem Cell Advances.” Science. 5854 (2007): 1224-1225.


[1] Smith, F. “The Value of NMR Imaging in Pediatric Practice: A Preliminary Report.” Pediatric Radiology. 13 (1983): 141-147.

[2] Philbin, T. “The 100 Greatest Inventions of All Time: A Ranking of Past and Present.” New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2003.

[3] Goldberg, S. “MRIs and the Perception of Risk.” American Journal of Law & Medicine. 33 (2007): 229-237.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dawkins, R. “What’s Wrong With Cloning?” Clones and Clones: Facts and Fantasies About Human Cloning. Ed. Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein. New York: W.H. Norton & Company, 1999. 54-66.

[6] Caplan, A. Cloning Ethics: Separating the Science from Fiction. MSNBC, 14 Dec. 2003. Web. 27 Mar. 2010. <>

[7] Ibid.

[8] Condit, C. et al. “An Exploratory Study of the Impact of News Headlines on Genetic Determinism.” Science Communication. 22 (2001): 379-395.

[9] Coca-Cola. Advertisement. 27 Mar. 2010 <>

[10] Seattle Mariners. Advertisement. 27 Mar. 2010 <>

[11] The belief in genetic determinism has limited itself not only to cloning, but has also spread into other debates, including immigration.  In the best-selling book, The Bell Curve, Hernstein and Murray use a genetic determinism model to argue that America’s cognitive ability is facing dysgenic pressure from immigration.  They make the assumption that immigrants with low IQs would also give birth to children with low IQs through a method of genetic inheritance: “[from] a faster generational cycle among the less intelligent and an immigrant population that is probably somewhat below the native-born average – the case is strong that something worth worrying about is happening to the cognitive capacity of the country” (364).  The widespread popularity of The Bell Curve indicates that the public has largely accepted the idea of genetic determinism.

[12] Furillo, A. Murder Charge Dropped in Fatal Oak Park Shooting. The Sacramento Bee, 2 Apr. 2010. Web. 8 Apr. 2010. <>

[13] The Ethics Committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.  “Sex Selection and Preimplantation Diagnosis.”  Fertility and Sterility. 72.4 (1999): 595-598.

[14] Dawkins, 1999.

[15] CNN. Clonaid Claims It Has Cloned A Baby Girl. CNN Breaking News, 27 Dec. 2002. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.

[16] Kass, L. “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” The New Republic. 1997: 17-26.

[17] Cimons, M., & L. Birmingham. “Scientists Appeal to Revoke Funding Ban on Embryo Research.”  Nature Medicine. 5 (1999): 6.

[18] Vogel, G. & C. Holden. “Field Leaps Forward with New Stem Cell Advances.” Science. 5854 (2007): 1224-1225.