We all know the keys to ward off premature aging, especially when it comes to protecting our skin: don’t smoke, wear sunscreen, drink less, eat a healthy diet, and exercise. Since the 1990s anti-aging products have sky-rocketed and aesthetic medicine, including injections and youth-preserving procedures, have been gaining popularity, but for some, that simply isn’t enough. The desire to drink from the fountain of youth, especially in the west, has influenced our society, culture, and even science. For example, transhumanists believe that technology will, someday, allow them to live indefinitely. Dr. Alex Zharvoronkov, anti-aging researcher and head of the biotech company Insilico Medicine, says that human clones are the answer to this eternal life. Even more, he believes this technology will be available by the time the children today have grown.
If his timeline is correct, then there is a sense of urgency for a discussion around the advancement of this morally repugnant technology. We feel the necessity for such conversations and that is why our Paul Ramsey Fellows recently spent a day discussing “Beyond Therapy,” a book that raises profound questions about technology allowing us to have “better children, superior performance, ageless bodies, and happy souls.” I encourage you to read the book, but for now let’s continue breaking down the matter of human clones for ‘eternal life.’
Cloning has been around for quite some time. You might remember Dolly the sheep from 1996. What you might not know is that the same technology used to clone Dolly was successfully used in humans in 2013. The four cloned human embryos were created and then destroyed, not living longer than the allocated rule of two weeks outside of a womb. Now scientists are proposing we use this technology to harvest organs like car parts. For scientists bent on pushing the transhumanist agenda, the idea is quite simple; human clones will provide ‘spare’ vital organs, like hearts, livers, lungs, for people when they “inevitably become unwell”, according to a recent article in Daily Mail.
So, let’s say little Jack grows up. He ages and eventually finds out his heart is failing. Rather than succumb to his natural fate of his worn-out body, he simply orders the spare heart from one of his human clones, stored somewhere in a human factory, and undergoes a heart transplant.
Of course, it’s more nuanced than that as Wesley J. Smith writes in his article:
The somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technique being discussed in the story is the same process that made Dolly the sheep. This is how it is done: An egg cell’s nucleus is removed. Next, the nucleus of the person to be cloned is removed from a skin cell and placed where the egg’s nucleus used to be. The modified egg would then be stimulated and, if the cloning “took,” a new human embryo would come into being… From that point, it would develop in the same way as an embryo that comes into existence through fertilization does. In other words, the clone of the person seeking to live forever would be fully human.
The idea is, of course, controversial and laden with bioethical issues. At the core, this technology is an assault on human dignity. We agree with Wesley J. Smith when he says, “This proposal is not only immoral, it is monstrous.” Why? Allow me to pose a few reasons and questions of my own.
First, cloning a human is experimental. What you might not remember about Dolly the sheep is that it took almost 300 attempts before she was successfully cloned. Like Smith, we presume that these clones would need to be gestated in artificial wombs, requiring “repeated experimentation on living human embryos and fetuses.” I am reminded here how often we forget about the children in the name of technology or in the claim that adults have a right to have a family or, in this case, live longer, but I digress. It’s no secret that cloned animals, like Dolly, have a “high rate of death and bodily deformities.” Scientists would be creating embryos, fetuses, and grown individuals via scientific experiment without any type of consent and without thought as to the quality of life they are creating. Have scientists stopped to think about the health of the human clone?
Secondly, cloning isn’t just creating another being, but it’s creating another identical being, at least on the cellular or genetic level. In order to provide this “cure” to aging, thousands of human clones would have to live in an unidentified storage location with the sole purpose of living so their parts could be harvested. What about the individual freedom and autonomy of these clones? As Jennifer Lahl points out in her article, Who Owns the Human Body, we don’t own our own bodies, so who will own the clones? Can they legally be owned like property? Does that sound a little like slavery? Finally, how can the cognitive function from such people be disconnected? Will they know they exist for spare parts?
Transplant surgery is historically risky, due to organ rejection and related complications, but Dr. Zhavoronkov assures us that with human clones the risk is minimal. After all, Jack isn’t receiving just any heart, he’s receiving his heart, or the heart of his genetic clone. It’s a perfect match, just a younger version. He’s glossing over the other risks involved with transplant surgery. Risks like clots, infection, or nerve damage, to name a few.
While the growing body of knowledge concerning human aging is relatively new, the quest for immortality or an indefinite lifespan is not. In this quest, all we have to do, according to Zhavoronkov, is figure out a way “to get around the ethical and regulatory problems” and then “just like with the iPhone or cars, it should not be too expensive and you may be able to get a new body from time to time as a regular consumer.”
We would argue that there is no getting around “the ethical and regulatory problems.” First, like we see in surrogacy, there is a financial component not to be ignored. Only some will have the means to purchase a clone and potentially live indefinitely causing social inequality to abound. Secondly, how equipped are healthcare systems to accommodate humans and their cloned donors? Who will pay for this healthcare? Next, if people lived ‘forever’, the population would continue to increase indefinitely. Not only does this raise ethical questions around the right to reproduce and the impact on the environment, but what about mental decline and quality of life for those individuals? Finally, paradoxically, the fear or reverence of death is what often motivates us to make the most of the time we have. If we knew we would live forever, would we be less inclined to seize the day or pursue our dreams.
Unfortunately, for scientists like Zhavoronkov, from where I sit, there is no way to get around the dignity owed to humans and limits, like life expectancy, should remain. At the CBC we recognize there is good in medicine and biotechnology when it achieves health; however, there are limits and we must maintain a healthy sense of mortality. As one Paul Ramsey graduate stated, “In an age where technology aims to triumph over all realms of life and poses serious threats to what it means to be human, these are serious questions worth reflecting on—and often worth exercising restraint…That’s one of the many reasons our Paul Ramsey Fellows study Dr. Gilbert Meilaender’s book Should We Live Forever?, which wrestles with the tensions of our desire often prolong life without limits. As Meilaender concludes in the book, the goal is not living forever but to have a complete life—one that has a shape, form, or trajectory.” So, for now, please, wear your sunscreen.
- Kallie Fell, MS, BSN, RN, started her professional career as a scientist in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center utilizing a Master of Science degree in Animal Sciences with an emphasis on Reproductive Physiology and Molecular Biology from Purdue University. While assisting in the investigation of endometriosis and pre-term birth, Kallie simultaneously pursued a degree in nursing with hopes of working with women as a perinatal nurse. After meeting Jennifer at a conference, Kallie became interested in the work of the Center for Bioethics and Culture and started volunteering with the organization. It is obvious that Kallie is passionate about women’s health. She continues to work, as she has for the past 6 years, as a perinatal nurse and has worked with the CBC since 2018, first as a volunteer writer, then as our staff Research Associate, and now as the Executive Director. In 2021, Kallie co-directed the CBC’s newest documentary, Trans Mission: What’s the Rush to Reassign Gender? Kallie also hosts the popular podcast Venus Rising and is the Program Director for the Paul Ramsey Institute.