Human cloning is currently illegal in virtually all parts of the world, but that doesn't mean it will stay that way. Here are some surprising things we can expect once we're finally allowed to make genetic duplicates of ourselves.
Back in 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Declaration on Human Cloning prohibiting all forms of human cloning "inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life." The ruling prohibits both therapeutic cloning, in which cells are cloned from a human for use in medicine and transplants, and reproductive cloning, the practice of creating a living, breathing genetic duplicate. Though many countries disagreed with the declaration, the resulting moratorium is respected around the globe.
To date, no human clone has ever been born. But back in 2008, researchers successfully created the first five mature human embryos using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) where the nucleus of a somatic cell was taken from a donor and transplanted into a vacant host egg cell. The embryos were only allowed to develop to the blastocyst stage, at which point they were studied and then destroyed.
So we know we can do it — we're just not entirely sure if it's completely safe. Nor is public opinion on board with the prospect. But that's not to say it won't ever happen. As the science improves, and as the concept gets normalized in our culture (thanks to shows like Orphan Black), people's opinions will likely change, and with it, the laws.
But if human cloning ever does become legal, we can expect some weirdness. Here are nine surprising outcomes.
Let's say you clone yourself. Should your clone, in turn, be allowed to clone him or herself? How could you possibly say no, and what makes you think you'd even have any control over your genome at this point anyway? Here's the thing — the moment you choose to reproduce via human cloning, you're going to have to expect that it may not be the only genetic version of yourself to roam this great Earth; it's doubtful that the law would preclude your clonal offspring from reproducing in the same way you did.
Likewise, a corporation could also claim ownership, particularly if they invented the technique used to clone you (better make sure to read the fine print). This is one of the underlying themes of the popular television show Orphan Black, in which a wealthy biotech firm, the Dyad Institute, claims intellectual ownership over a clonal line. Given the open and ambiguous state of patent law today, it's conceivable that certain human genomes, or parts of it, may lie outside our ownership, and subsequently, our control.
Disturbingly, there's also the potential for someone to clone you illegally. All they'd have to do is gather the required biological material, like your skin or blood cells, and hire a willing surrogate to carry your clone to term.
Back in 2002, the Raelian UFO cult falsely claimed to have cloned the first human, who they dubbed "Eve." The incident hinted at the potential for other groups to do it for real in the future.
Such an act would be extremely unethical, but not impossible. In the future, credible fertility clinics should refuse to do it without some kind of written consent, but black market options will likely become available. There's also the potential for biotech labs to do it covertly, along with cults and religious groups.
Why would someone or some group do this? Aside from religious or profit motives, perhaps they'd be looking to clone their favorite celebrity, or raise a genetic duplicate of their favorite scientist or political figure.
It's also possible that prospective parents might want to raise the clone of a parent or grandparent who's recently passed away. Of course, and ideally, the deceased person would have given prior consent to such a thing. The laws aren't there yet, but the day is coming when we'll need to clarify in our wills whether or not we would be accepting of this after we pass away. Our genetic constitutions will become part of our "estate" after death.
Couples in mourning may also want to clone a dead child, perhaps one lost to an accident. This prospect is ethically challenging for a number of reasons, including the fact that the deceased child cannot give consent, nor would it truly "return" the original child (it would merely produce a twin).
It appears that we can clone clones indefinitely. Last year, researchers in Japan used a new technique to produce 26 successful generations of cloned mice from a single individual. In total, they produced 598 mice — all of them genetic duplicates. The breakthrough shows that mammalian cloning lines — humans included — can be extended and reproduced without limit. This implies that a kind of genetic immortality can be achieved; an exact replica of yourself can be copied for generations on end. Duncan Idaho's gholas from the Dune saga would be proud. (image: Hasloo Group Production Studio/Shutterstock)
On a related note, indefinite cloning could lead to the practice of selective trait modifications over time. By using heritable germline gene therapy, each successive generation of clones could be augmented or altered in specific ways. For example, your clonal line could feature slow, iterative improvements to intelligence and memory. Or changes to physical characteristics, like hair color or morphology. Artificial chromosomes could be introduced as they're developed and improved over time by scientists. After centuries of this virtual asexual reproduction, your "offspring" would scarcely resemble the original version, namely you.
This probably wouldn't pose a problem for the first generation of clones, but if some lines are reproduced enough, it could lead to an incessant rash of mistaken identity. People would be convinced that they saw someone they know or recognize, when in fact it was a clone. This would only apply, of course, to inter-generational clones of roughly the same age. Relatedly, it could lead to new kind of identity theft in which clones pretend to be another person.
Which bring up an interesting point as it pertains to forensic science and the acquisition of biosignatures. The proliferation of clones would introduce a slew of problems for investigators or systems reliant on biometrics. Facial recognition scans would pull up multiple matches, as would DNA fingerprinting. And in fact, there's already a precedent with this, but one that doesn't involve clones. Last year, identical twins in the UK were both charged with sexually assaulting a teenage girl — even though forensic tests could not prove which one carried out the attack.
Twins separated at birth have been a boon to scientists, particular those who study behavioral genetics. It offers them the opportunity to compare the impacts of socialization and environment on individuals who share the same genome. Unfortunately, however, there are achingly few subjects to study. Cloning could change that.
What's more, scientists would not only be able to study intergenerational clones, but also clones separated by an entire generation or more. The results would undoubtedly be fascinating. We could see the extent to which sociological factors play a role in the development of personality, and the way epigenetic changes are triggered by the environment (including the mother's womb).
Less speculatively, human cloning will simply serve as an alternative means of reproduction, particularly for infertile couples or same-sex couples looking to have biologically related offspring. The current hysteria directed at human cloning is eerily reminiscent of the backlash to so-called "test tube babies" in the late 1970s. Critics worried about a brave new world populated by freakish lab-grown children. Today, the fear is gone; approximately 200,000 babies are born each year in the United States via in vitro fertilization (IVF) and no one seems to care. I fully expect the same process of normalization to happen happen with human cloning.
As for the argument that people are arrogant or narcissistic for wanting to clone themselves, that's grossly unfair. Wanting to have related offspring is a perfectly normal thing — even if it is a genetic duplicate, or a "delayed twin." What's more, parents who reproduce "normally" often have children — and subsequently raise them — for reasons far worse than this. We can't simply point the finger at cloners and declare their motivations as somehow being wrong or deviant. What matters is that they have access to reproductive technologies, and that they assume the role of a responsible parent. (image: Sukharevskyy Dmytro (nevodka)/Shutterstock)
Finally, as for clones inundating the gene pool, that's highly, highly unlikely. The vast majority of people will never opt to clone themselves, so the number of clones in our society will always remain excruciatingly low. There will be no "homogenization" of the human gene pool.