Here Come the Clones: “Orphan Black” and the Ethics of Cloning

From the lecture series: Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

Cloning is the process of taking the genetic material of one being and creating another with exactly the same genetic make-up. This could not only provide infertile individuals with the opportunity to reproduce, but even give us the ability to “replace” people who have suffered untimely deaths. Most people currently think that cloning should be illegal. But should it? To explore the issue, we can use the TV show Orphan Black as reference.

The image shows identical genetic clones.
Clones are often thought of as being identical to each other not only in appearance, but also in the way the think and behave. (Image: Shutterstock)

Orphan Black

Orphan Black opens with a troubled woman, Sarah, witnessing the suicide of another woman, Beth, who looks suspiciously similar like her. She steals Beth’s identity, only to eventually learn that Beth is not the only woman who looks like her. There are also Alison, Cosima, and Helena. Together, they realize they’re clones and set out to find the who, what, and why of their existence. In the process they meet almost 20 clones in all—including Rachel, an executive in the company that produced them.

Orphan Black fights a common misconception about clones that is usually perpetuated by science fiction. Usually, clones are depicted as carbon copies who look, behave, and even have the same memories as the original. All the copies of Michael Keaton in Multiplicity, for example, not only all act alike (except for the one with a genetic defect), but it is almost as if they are all numerically identical to Michael Keaton’s character, Doug.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Clones are Individuals Too

Although clones would look the same, they would each be their own person, their own individual. Not only would they be numerically distinct, but their behavior and even personalities would be completely different. Why? Because the different environments to which they are exposed would shape them all differently. Even if they grew up in the same household, they would not be carbon copies of each other any more than two genetic twins are. In fact, that is all clones really are—artificially produced twins.

Orphan Black demonstrates this. Sarah, Allison, Helena, and Rachel’s different environments make them very different people. Your genes do not determine everything about you. And this shows the folly of trying to replace an individual with their clone after they have suffered an untimely death.

Learn more about cloning and stem cells.

Are Clones Disposable?

Another common mistake in sci-fi is thinking that clones would be “non-persons”—disposable entities without souls, which can be mistreated or used without moral regard. The view seems to be rooted in a sentiment expressed by Agent K in Blade Runner 2049. “To be born is to have a soul.” But the idea that “being born” is necessary for someone to “have a soul” is ludicrous. First of all, the idea that souls exist is widely rejected by academics. And even if the soul did exist, why would being born be a necessary condition for having one? Wouldn’t having a functioning brain be the more likely candidate?

Now, we might argue that, even if clones have minds, you could create a clone of yourself for backup organs because you’re allowed to use your own body, including your DNA, as you see fit. But if you voluntarily create clones of yourself, they would have their own mind and rights. You could not own your clones any more than one twin could own another. And you would have no more right to your clone’s bodily resources than your clone would have to yours.

Unnatural But Not Immoral

A new-born clone baby.
Though cloning may technically be “unnatural” that does not mean it is immoral. (Image: mrjo/Shutterstock)

The most common rationale against the existence of clones is the “it’s not natural” argument, which fallaciously equates “not natural” with “immoral”. One might also worry that people would treat clones as if they were property, as if they were soulless, even though they were not. But this is not a reason to legally restrict cloning. But the fact that society would mistreat them is evidence that society should change.

The real worry is that human cloning technology is not yet far enough along. Attempts to do it would likely end in miscarriage, stillbirths, or birth defects. And that is a good reason to legally ban attempts to plant cloned embryos into fertile women, at our present stage of development. But that is not a reason to ban the further development of such technology; one day clones could be reliably implanted and born healthy.

Learn more about isolating genes and DNA.

Zygote Personhood

Here, the issue of “zygote personhood” becomes relevant. To develop such technology would require much trial and error, and that would mean the creation and destruction of millions of zygotes. But if zygotes are persons, that means such research would cost millions of human lives. And as Dave Weldon from the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity argues, invoking Immanuel Kant: “It is unethical to view a human being—regardless of its age—as a means to an end.”

But there are major problems with this argument. First, it is impossible to establish that zygotes actually are persons. The argument essentially rests on a religious assumption—and religious assumptions are not a legitimate basis for law. Second, by this logic, in vitro fertilization is immoral, because it usually involves discarding zygotes. And third, if zygotes are persons, research into cloning would not be any more detrimental to human life than natural biological reproduction.

No Cloning, No Birth Control?

At most, only 20 percent of zygotes created naturally result in live births. The rest either never implant in the uterus or fail to develop once implanted. If zygotes are persons, 80 percent of all persons who have ever lived were snuffed out by the natural process of sexual reproduction. And that’s not counting the use of birth control pills. Some birth control pills ensure that implantation does not change the hormonal balance that causes the lining of the uterus to be shed.

If cloning research is dreadfully immoral because it disposes of zygotes, so is a lot of birth control. And while some might be comfortable with that conclusion, most cannot be without being hypocritical.

Common Questions about Orphan Black and the Ethics of Cloning

Q: What is the premise of Orphan Black?

The premise of Orphan Black is that there is a sinister organization which produces clones for various purposes. The main character Sarah eventually finds out that she and some 20 others are identical clones, as she and the others set out to find the reason why they were created.

Q: What myth does Orphan Black debunk about clones?

Orphan Black clearly shows that clones may look identical but the way they think and behave is quite different.

Q: Why is the concept of zygote personhood a fallacious argument against cloning?

One argument against clone research is that it will cause the “death” of millions of zygotes, potential humans, in this view. But the fact that even in the process of natural births only 20 percent zygotes ever survive proves that this is a fallacious argument.

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