Investigating the Intersection Between Anthropological Discourse and Public Policy in Bioethical Matters of Human Cloning

Investigating the role of public policy in human cloning brings to light the complexity yet importance of our national discourse on bioethics. As many of the prominent figures in this debate have stated, the technology of human cloning crosses over a line that has never been crossed in the past. This places the entirety of human society at a unique place of moral pioneership that brings to attention conversations involving the role of biotechnology and science in serving humanity. Regardless of individual opinions on the morality of the issue itself, all parties are in agreement that multifaceted consideration and prudence is obligatory in order to most responsibly proceed in taking ethical action. However, the actual process of decision making proves to be immensely difficult. The diversity of America in every imaginable regard—socioeconomic history, cultural background and religious beliefs, education level, among many others—presents a multiplicity of voices that add nuance and ample disagreements to the national debate. At this current time, attempts at drafting federal legislation on the issue of human cloning have failed, though the debate continues with intensity. Not only do personal beliefs on the role of science in society filter into the discourse, but also beliefs on the role of the federal government in protecting individual autonomy while securing the overall good of society. 

One of the prominent voices of the debate came from the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB). This council was appointed under the Bush administration, with Bush appointing Leon Kass as the chairman, and Kass appointing the rest of the 17 member council. According the Kass, the diversity of academic background, cultural practices and religious beliefs among the members of the board make their council an excellent environment for multifaceted consideration of the debate on human cloning (Kass, 2002). Each member possessed advanced degrees and unique expertise in their respective fields. In striving to detach themselves initially from the impasse experienced in the public policy arena, one of their primary intents was to clarify the jargon behind this new technology while presenting many different viewpoints in order to stimulate continued debate. They believed that their cumulative expertise allowed them to advise politicians and members of the public, but stressed that the crux of the decision making had to come from the opinion of the general public, whom Kass described as the rightful arbiters of these highly public matters (Kass, 2005). 

Overall, the council appears to stress caution regarding the use of cloning technologies. Their unanimous opinion involves the total banning of cloning-to-produce-children, and support either a political moratorium or immediate regulation regarding cloning-for-biomedical-research. In my opinion, two levels of focus generally describe the foundation of their arguments: first, when investigating the potential proximate ramifications of this technology, they give consideration to the uncertain safety of the mother and child, and some members also call into account the moral status of the embryo. Second, the ultimate implications may involve what they describe as “a devaluation of human goods,” namely human dignity, respect for the weak, and protection of the family and individual identity. Kass mentions the code of ethics from the Nuremberg trials quite frequently, and uses the concepts of equal beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice to support their call for caution (Kass, 2002). 

On the other side of the national debate, many bioethicists are quick to label the council and similar opinions as belonging to political conservatism. According to self-described “liberal humanitarian bioethicist” Ruth Macklin, prominent individuals such as Kass, Krauthammer, and Neuhaus present insufficient arguments for their stance of reluctance. Macklin points out differences in rhetorical style between the liberal and conservative sides of the debate by suggesting that conservative dialogue places emphasis on an “intuitionist epistemology” that they view as self-evident. They rely on broad concepts of human dignity without much clarity and give value to “deep moral sentiments.” She brings as an example the viewpoint that “children are a gift [from God],” an argument that may stand as self-evident among people from similar religious backgrounds, but is not necessarily the case for all individuals. Macklin notes that Kass’s style of rhetoric actually serves as a barrier to productive debate, which is antithetical to the intent of their council. In order to properly engage not only the general public but also the community of scientists, politicians, and bioethicists—the experts in their fields of study—it is necessary to engage in more common discourse without such heavy reliance on vague and emotionally-charged rhetoric (Macklin, 2006).

As presented above, there is often correlation between religious beliefs and the tendency to use emotion-filled rhetoric with powerful concepts such as “human dignity” when looking at the morality of human cloning. While the non-religious and generally liberal group of bioethicists may find it difficult establishing common ground for debate when conversing with those from religious backgrounds, certain voices present compelling reasons for the compatibility of religion and discourse on human cloning. In specifically the Jewish context, Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz elaborates upon personal beliefs to question the inherent stereotype that religious discourse is close-minded to the debate. Breitowitz points out that humans were created in the image of God, the ultimate Creator. God gifts humans with creativity, the capacity to partner alongside Him in the ultimate mission of alleviating suffering, and the obligation to make moral judgements given our capability for rational thinking. He acknowledges the tension between leaning on human reasoning and remembering a stance of utmost humility before God, but asserts that the latter consideration should not be a hindrance towards the former: in other words, his religious beliefs compel him to more critically engage in the debate to best consider the most societally beneficial action as a whole (Breitowitz, 2004).

At this time, the weight of complexity makes it feel that adding a whole other national discourse would just convolute our understanding even more. However, a brief analysis of the German conversation on the bioethics of human cloning presents a valuable alternative that can be used for comparison as we strive to productively take action in our own national debate. It is interesting that proponents and opponents are not drawn across political lines of liberalism vs. conservatism in Germany, but a whole spectrum of political beliefs can be found in each of their categories: techno-optimists vs. techno-skeptics. The debate constantly wavers under a tension between “managerial discourse” and “Republican discourse.” The former focuses on knowledge from experts, functions largely on risk-benefit analysis, narrows the debate to add focus, and serves to help make “public opinion rational” and better informed. The latter focuses on discourse regarding the broader scope of human goods and the meaning of humanity, simultaneously allowing for consideration of religious beliefs and the ethics of social justice (Braun, 2005). The two perspectives effectively complement one another in a way that could perhaps be of value to the current debate in our own nation. 

In taking a step back, we see value in engaging in this debate on bioethics not only because it is a topic of utmost concern for the state of our nation and the evolution of humanity, but also because of the rich anthropological investigation it entails as we observe tensions, limitations, and the complexity of human nature in our highly structured society. Much like the format that Leon Kass marshalled in the council’s broad focus on human society, attempting to initially refrain from asserting directionality and instead simply giving merit to the construction of multiple viewpoints, anthropology likewise aims to provide the freedom in pursuing a holistic understanding. Kass leaned on certain truths that were driven by intuition, in some regards similar to the activity of the anthropological researcher who investigates issues that aren’t necessarily observable based on quantifiable figures. However, just as critics demanded that Kass ground his discourse in concrete rhetoric in order to more effectively communicate on common grounds, it is important to remember that anthropology not only serves to increase the exciting freedom of academic exploration, but also acts as a potent tool towards informing public policy and grounding many other areas of human society. It is under these tensions that we may flourish in advancing closer towards productive discourse, social justice, and the overall betterment of human society. 


Kathrin Braun, “Not Just for Experts: The Public Debate about Reprogenetics in Germany.” Hastings Center Report 35 (2005): 42-49.

Leon R. Kass, Human Cloning and Human Dignity (President’s Council on Bioethics, 2002).

Leon R. Kass, Reflections on Public Bioethics: A View from the Trenches,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 15 (2005): 221-250.

Ruth Macklin, “The New Conservatives in Bioethics: Who are they and what do they seek?” Hastings Center Report 36 (January-February 2006): 34-43.

Yitzchok Breitowitz, “What’s So Bad about Human Cloning?” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (2004): 325-341.