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Why Not?

It seems important, at least to the editors of the New York Times, for us to know that Prof. Lawrence Tribe of the Harvard Law School is having "second thoughts" regarding the prohibition of human cloning. Several years ago, he "leaned toward prohibition as the safest course." But today he is "inclined" to say: "Not so fast."1

Why the change? Tribe is reluctant to endorse legal or social distinctions based on beliefs about what is "natural." Such beliefs, he worries, are "vague." They are also intertwined with tradition and conventional morality. Some of them are even connected to religion. In addition, the notion that some institutions and practices are naturally suited to humans—that they properly fit who we are—can lead to the stigmatizing of institutions and practices that are deemed unnatural. In the unenlightened old days, Tribe reminds us, we used to do this all the time: "One need only think of the long struggle to overcome the stigma of 'illegitimacy' for the children of unmarried parents."

Finally, a society that endorses some things as "natural" will "risk cutting itself off from vital experimentation," including lifestyle experimentation. In the case of cloning, the immediate victims of nonexperimentation would be all those "with unconventional ways of linking erotic attachment, romantic commitment, genetic replication, gestational mothering, and the joys and responsibilities of child rearing."

To me, this argument flows inevitably from Tribe's unstated but implicit definition of the human person. For Tribe, we humans are what John Rawls calls "self-originating sources of valid claims." We are autonomous units of desires, rights, and legitimate values of our own choosing. Each of us is working on a separate canvas. I may choose to paint a life in which I marry and, through sexual union with my wife, become the father of our child. Or I may choose to paint a life in which, through cloning, I engage in asexual reproduction, intentionally producing ...

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