How We Feel about Human Cloning

Guest post by Joshua May

Suppose you desperately want a healthy child to build a family of your own.  As is increasingly common, however, you can’t do it naturally – whether from infertility, a genetic disease you don’t want to pass on, or a non-traditional relationship.  If you seek a genetic connection with the child, there are some limitations to the main alternatives: adoption, surrogacy, and in vitro fertilization.  You may yearn for more options.

How would you feel about cloning?  Take the nucleus of a cell from yourself or a loved one, then put it into an egg that will eventually develop into a baby that shares nearly all the genes of the donor cell.  The resulting baby will simply be a kind of ‘delayed twin’ of the donor.

Most people believe this is immoral.  There’s a bit more support for therapeutic uses that merely create new tissue, for example.  But, at least in the US and UK, people overwhelmingly condemn cloning for the purposes of creating new human lives.  In fact, a recent poll suggests there is little disagreement in America over this issue, where human cloning is among the most widely condemned topics (alongside polygamy and infidelity).

That’s what people think, but how do they feel?  Controversial bioethical issues often generate intense feelings.  Some bioethicists treat cloning in particular as a line in the sand that we mustn’t cross, for fear of sliding down a slippery slope to a dystopia.

Consider Leon Kass, who played a major role in public policy as chair of George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics.  Kass argues that there is wisdom in repugnance toward human cloning, allowing us to ‘intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear’.  As opposed to mere unease or sadness, Kass and some others have argued that disgust is such a powerful and distinctive emotion that we should take it seriously as a moral guide when deliberating about ethical issues.

An empirical claim lurks.  Such bioethicists assume that people in general share their reaction of repugnance. Besides, if we can uncover the emotional reactions people tend to feel toward disputed moral issues, then we can better understand why they hold the beliefs they do.  Does the prospect of cloning humans make us sick?  Scared?  Sad?  Angry?  Excited?  At ease?

In my paper, I provide some initial evidence that people (at least in the States) feel primarily anxious and curious about human reproductive cloning.  These were the most frequently self-reported negative and positive emotions, not disgust, fear, sadness, anger, excitement, amusement, comfort, or joy.Now disgust was interestingly the third most commonly reported negative emotion when selected from a pre-set list.  But only about one third of participants selected it, and even fewer mentioned disgust before seeing such a list.  Moreover, the term ‘disgust’ is used in many ways, sometimes just to indicate one’s moral disapproval rather than an emotion.  For example, writer Philip Pullman once condemned a ban on sending prisoners books in prison, calling it ‘disgusting’.  Such uses of the term may well be to merely signal one’s disapproval, not to report an emotional reaction that is guiding one’s judgment.

Data on people’s reactions don’t directly support the morality or immorality of human cloning.  But there are various implications.

First, it’s not so clear that there’s a ‘widespread’ reaction of repugnance to human cloning that we should heed.  Our emotional reactions are more complicated and varied.  Even if there are sound arguments against human cloning, arguments from repugnance rest on shaky ground.

Second, we should be careful to attribute certain reactions to the populace without some empirical data in support.  We should scrutinise, for example, talk of ‘the widespread repugnances of humankind,’ as Kass has put it.

Finally, I hope this initial dataset will motivate further research on how we think and feel about various contemporary moral issues.  The kinds of reactions people have can illuminate their concerns and the nature of the moral disagreements that animate public discourse.

When it comes to human cloning, for example, we now have some evidence that people don’t necessarily feel repugnance toward it and thus don’t perceive cloning as violating things they hold dear.  The combination of anxiety and curiosity may indicate instead that the morality of human cloning is question because it’s perceived as novel and unpredictable.


Read the full paper here.