Never Let Me Go: A Cautionary Tale of Human Cloning

“Who’d make up stories as horrible as that?”— Ruth

Sins of Futures Past

In 2002, the birth of the first human clone was announced. Baby Eve was born on December 26, 2002, and weighed seven pounds. Or so it was claimed. The announcement attracted media attention from around the world, and spawned story after story of the birth. Since then, no proof has emerged that baby Eve was anything other than a publicity stunt. But the furor at the time demonstrated how contentious the very idea of creating living copies of people can be.

There’s something about human cloning that seems to jar our
sense of right and wrong. It instinctively feels — to many people,
I suspect — as if it’s not quite right. Yet, at the same time, there’s something fascinating about the idea that we might one day be able to recreate a new person in our own likeness, or possibly “resurrect” someone we can’t bear to lose — a child who’s passed, or a loved relative. There’s even the uneasy notion that maybe, one day, we could replicate those members of society who do the work we can’t do, or don’t want to — a ready supply of combat personnel, maybe, or garbage collectors. Or even, possibly, living, breathing organ donors.

As it turns out, cloning humans is really difficult. It’s also fraught with ethical problems. But this hasn’t stopped people trying, despite near-universal restrictions prohibiting it.

On December 27, 2002, Brigitte Boisselier, a scientist working for the organization Clonaid, announced that a cloned baby girl,
Eve, had been delivered by cesarian section to a thirty-one-year-
old woman. Clonaid was founded in 1997 with the express aim of cloning humans. But the company’s mission was far more ambitious than this. The organization had its roots in the ideas and teachings of one-time racing car test-driver, and subsequently self- proclaimed religious leader, Claude Vorilhon. Vorilhon, who later renamed himself Raël and went on to establish the Raëlian religious movement, believes that we are the creations of a “scientifically more advanced species.” These aliens — the “Elohim” — have, he claims, discovered the secret of immortality. And the key to this is, apparently, cloning.

You could be forgiven for feeling a little skeptical at this point. Raël’s stories and beliefs come across as fantastical and delusional, at least when they’re boiled down to their bare bones. But they offer a window into the world of cloning that bizarrely echoes some of the more mainstream ideas of transhumanists, and even some technology entrepreneurs. They also create an intriguing canvas on which to begin exploring the moral dilemmas presented in the movie Never Let Me Go.

Never Let Me Go was never intended as a science fiction movie. Its scriptwriter (and the author of the novel the movie’s based on), Kazuo Ishiguro, was interested in what it means to live a meaningful life, especially if that life is short and limited. Ironically, the setting he used to explore this was a society that has discovered the secret of a long and disease-free life. But the technology this secret depends on is a program of human cloning, developed for no purpose other than to allow the clones’ organs to be harvested when the appropriate time came to keep others alive and healthy.

To Ishiguro, the clones were simply a plot device. Nevertheless, the characters he created and the circumstances of their lives reveal a dark side of how technologies like cloning can, if not used ethically and responsibly, lead to quite devastating discrimination and abuse.

Never Let Me Go is set in a fictitious England in the 1970s to 1990s. On the surface, it reminds me of the England I grew up in; the settings, the people, and the culture all have a nostalgic familiarity to them. But, unlike the England I remember, there’s something deeply disturbing under the surface here. What unfolds is a heart-wrenching story about dignity, rights, and happiness, and what it means to have value as a person. And because the movie is not focused on the technology itself, but on the lives it impacts, it succeeds in providing a searing insight into the social and moral risks of selling our collective souls as we unquestionably embrace the seeming promise of new technological capabilities.

Never Let Me Go is a movie that delves deeply into the questionable morality of convenient technologies. It’s also a movie that challenges us to think about how we treat others, and what separates humanity from inhumanity.

Cloning

Despite advances in the science of cloning, the general consensus on whether we should allow humans to be cloned seems to be “no,” at least at the moment, although this is by no means a universally accepted position. In 2005, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a “Declaration on Human Cloning” whereby “Member states were called on to adopt all measures necessary to prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.” Yet this was not a unanimous declaration: eighty-four members voted in favor, thirty-four against, and thirty-seven abstained. One of the more problematic issues was how absolute the language was in the declaration. A number of those member states that voted against it expressed their opposition to human reproductive cloning where a fully functioning person results (human reproductive cloning), but wanted to ensure that the way remained open to therapeutic cloning, where cloned cells remain in lab cultures.

This concern over human reproductive cloning seems to run deep. Certainly, it’s reflected in a number of the positions expressed within the UN Declaration and is a topic of concern within plenty of popular articles on cloning. The thought of being able to grow people at will from a few cells feels to many people to be unnatural and dangerous. It also raises tough questions around potential misuse, which is something that Never Let Me Go focuses our attention on rather acutely.

In 2014, the online magazine io9 published an article on nine “unexpected outcomes of human cloning,” keeping the fascination we have with this technology going, despite the deep moral concerns surrounding it. These unexpected outcomes included ownership of clones (will someone else own the patent on your body?), the possibility of iterative improvements over generations (essentially a DNA software upgrade on each cloning), and raising the dead (why not give Granny a new lease on life?). The article is admittedly lighthearted. But it does begin to dig into the challenges we’ll face if someone does decide to buck the moral trend and start to turn out human facsimiles. And the reality is that, as biomedical science progresses, this is becoming increasingly feasible. Admittedly, it’s incredibly difficult at the moment to reproduce people. But this is not always going to be the case. And as the possibility comes closer, we’re going to face some increasingly tough choices as a society.

Yet despite the unease around human cloning, there are some people who actively suggest the idea shouldn’t be taken off the table completely. In 1997, not too long after Dolly’s birth, a group of prominent individuals put their name to a “Declaration in Defense of Cloning and the Integrity of Scientific Research.” Signatories included co-discoverer of DNA Francis Crick, scientist and writer Richard Dawkins, and novelist Kurt Vonnegut.

This Declaration acknowledges how knotty an ethical issue human cloning is, and it recognizes up front the need for appropriate guidelines. But where it differs from the later UN Declaration is that its authors suggest that human cloning isn’t as ethically or morally fraught as some people make out. In fact, they state:

“We see no inherent ethical dilemmas in cloning non- human higher animals. Nor is it clear to us that future developments in cloning human tissues or even cloning human beings will create moral predicaments beyond the capacity of human reason to resolve. The moral issues raised by cloning are neither larger nor more profound than the questions human beings have already faced in regards to such technologies as nuclear energy, recombinant DNA, and computer encryption. They are simply new.”

The Declaration doesn’t go so far as to suggest that human reproductive cloning should proceed. But it does say that decisions should be made based on science and reasoned thinking, and it cautions scientists and policy makers to ensure “traditionalist and obscurantist views do not irrelevantly obstruct beneficial scientific developments.”

In other words, the declaration’s authors are clear in their conviction that religious beliefs and mystical thinking should not be allowed to stand in the way of scientific progress.

Ironically, one of the easiest places to find a copy of the “Declaration in Defense of Cloning…” is, in fact, in a treatise that is infused with religious beliefs and mystical thinking: Claude Vorilhon’s monograph Yes to Human Cloning

Read more in Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies, available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobel, Indie Bound, and elsewhere.

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Andrew Maynard

Andrew Maynard

Scientist, futurist & Professor of Global Futures at ASU. Author of Future Rising and Films from the Future. Writing about tech, society, & the future