It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… Superclone?

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… Superclone?

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… Superclone?

Is human cloning a feminist issue?


Is human cloning a feminist issue? Two cloning bans are currently winding their way through Congress: In the Senate, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act seeks to ban all cloning of human cells, while a House version leaves a window open for cloning stem cells but bans attempts to create a cloned human being. Since both bills are the brainchildren of antichoice Republican yahoos, who have done nothing for women’s health or rights in their entire lives, I was surprised to get an e-mail inviting me to sign a petition supporting the total ban, organized by feminist heroine Judy Norsigian of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (the producers of Our Bodies, Ourselves) and signed by Ruth Hubbard, Barbara Seaman, Naomi Klein and many others (you can find it at Are feminists so worried about “creating a duplicate human” that they would ban potentially useful medical research? Isn’t that the mirror image of antichoice attempts to block research using stem cells from embryos created during in vitro fertilization?

My antennae go up when people start talking about threats to “human individuality and dignity”–that’s a harrumph, not an argument. The petition raises one real ethical issue, however, that hasn’t gotten much attention but by itself justifies a ban on trying to clone a person: The necessary experimentation–implanting clonal embryos in surrogate mothers until one survives till birth–would involve serious medical risks for the women and lots of severely defective babies. Dolly, the cloned Scottish sheep, was the outcome of a process that included hundreds of monstrous discards, and Dolly herself has encountered developmental problems. That’s good reason to go slow on human research–especially when you consider that the people pushing it most aggressively are the Raelians, the UFO-worshiping cult of technogeeks who have enlisted the services of Panayiotis Zanos, a self-described “cowboy” of assisted reproduction who has been fired from two academic jobs for financial and other shenanigans.

Experimental ethics aside, though, I have a hard time taking cloning seriously as a threat to women or anyone else–the scenarios are so nutty. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who took a break from bashing gay marriage to testify last month before Congress against cloning, wrote a piece in The New Republic in 1997 in which she seemed to think cloning an adult cell would produce another adult–a carbon of yourself that could be kept for spare parts, or maybe a small army of Mozart xeroxes, all wearing knee breeches and playing the Marriage of Figaro. Actually, Mozart’s clone would be less like him than identical twins are like each other: He would have different mitochondrial DNA and a different prenatal environment, not to mention a childhood in twenty-first-century America with the Smith family rather than in eighteenth-century Austria under the thumb of the redoubtable Leopold Mozart. The clone might be musical, or he might be a billiard-playing lounge lizard, but he couldn’t compose Figaro. Someone already did that.

People thinking about cloning tend to imagine Brave New World dystopias in which genetic engineering reinforces inequality. But why, for example, would a corporation go to the trouble of cloning cheap labor? We have Mexico and Central America right next door! As for cloning geniuses to create superbabies, good luck. The last thing most Americans want are kids smarter than they are, rolling their eyeballs every time Dad starts in on the gays and slouching off to their rooms to I-M other genius kids in Sanskrit. Over nine years, only 229 babies were born to women using the sperm bank stocked with Nobel Prize winners’ semen–a tiny fraction, I’ll bet, of those conceived in motel rooms with reproductive assistance from Dr. Jack Daniel’s.

Similarly, cloning raises fears of do-it-yourself eugenics–designer babies “enhanced” through gene manipulation. It’s hard to see that catching on, either. Half of all pregnancies are unintended in this country. People could be planning for “perfect” babies today–preparing for conception by giving up cigarettes and alcohol and unhealthy foods, reading Stendhal to their fetuses in French. Only a handful of yuppie control freaks actually do this, the same ones who obsess about getting their child into a nursery school that leads straight to Harvard. Those people are already the “genetic elite”–white, with lots of family money. What do they need genetic enhancement for? They think they’re perfect now.

Advocates of genetic tinkering make a lot of assumptions that opponents tacitly accept: for instance, that intelligence, talent and other qualities are genetic, and in a simple way. Gays, for example, worry that discovery of a “gay gene” will permit selective abortion of homosexual fetuses, but it’s obvious that same-sex desire is more complicated than a single gene. Think of Ancient Greece, or Smith College. Even if genetic enhancement isn’t the pipe dream I suspect it is, feminists should be the first to understand how socially mediated supposedly inborn qualities are–after all, women are always being told anatomy is their destiny.

There’s a strain of feminism that comes out of the women’s health movement of the seventies that is deeply suspicious of reproductive technology. In this view, prenatal testing, in vitro fertilization and other innovations commodify women’s bodies, are subtly coercive and increase women’s anxieties, while moving us steadily away from experiencing pregnancy and childbirth as normal, natural processes. There’s some truth to that, butwhat about the side of feminism that wants to open up new possibilities for women? Reproductive technology lets women have children, and healthy children, later; have kids with lesbian partners; have kids despite disabilities and illness. Cloning sounds a little weird, but so did in vitro in 1978, when Louise Brown became the first “test tube baby.” Of course, these technologies have evolved in the context of for-profit medicine; of course they represent skewed priorities, given that 43 million Americans lack health insurance and millions worldwide die of curable diseases like malaria. Who could argue that the money and brain power devoted to cloning stem cells could not be better used on something else? But the same can be said of every aspect of American life. The enemy isn’t the research, it’s capitalism.

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