Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The End of Sex As We Know It” first appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Touchstone.
The End of Sex As We Know It
William Luse on the Implications of Cloning
If the technology of cloning can in time be reliably applied to humans, the clone and his progenitor will be bound together by more than biological heritage. The clone will live beneath the dual shadows cast by a terrible knowledge: that not only is his life—bereft of a unique biological identity—not fully his own, but also that he was manufactured for the purpose of reproducing desirable traits identified in advance, as some now seek abortion to sex-select a child, or as some women seek insemination with the thawed-out sperm of a refrigerated genius. How much we are affected by this terrible knowledge will be determined by how much we care about the clone.
A society that can sit by while upwards of 30 million of its children are aborted, while thousands are discarded in errant attempts at in vitro fertilization (IVF), while thousands more are preserved in a frozen limbo and made ready for use, sale, or disposal at their donors’ convenience, is not a society that will blanch for long at the idea of reproductive cloning. The technological assault on the mechanics of sexual reproduction and the ethical deconstruction surrounding the disposition of its unwanted consequences have been underway for quite some time, and we have managed to absorb them with relative ease.
Assuming that cloning technology will surmount the difficulties presented by premature aging and congenital defects, we will accustom ourselves to its presence as its ubiquity wears down our moral resolve, as has happened with those other evils. That resolve has always been anchored in the foundation of love between husband and wife in marriage. If the means by which we bring children into the world bears any relation to our love for them, and to the love between man and woman, we cannot help but wonder if this new technology might further endanger, even threaten the survival of, our most enduring human institution.
As things now stand, with sexual intercourse still the normal means of conceiving and bringing a child into the world, the advent of reproductive cloning will not be marked by parents looking to give birth to their biological duplicates. Most couples will desire a mix of their genetic endowments, resulting in that happy surprise that allows them to call the baby “ours.” Such a couple would see no advantage to cloning.
But suppose the woman, through some natural defect, cannot conceive in the normal way but still wants that happy surprise. She might have herself cloned and the embryo implanted in her womb. She is now carrying her duplicate, toward the nurturing of which creature her motherly instincts will likely be highly ambiguous. When the fetus reaches a certain age, her lifetime’s supply of eggs will be ready for harvesting. But for the eggs to be harvested, the mother must abort the fetus.
Some of the harvested eggs will be fertilized in vitro by her husband’s sperm, and the rest put into cold storage. A few of the resulting embryos will be implanted in her womb (“selective reduction” the subsequent medical advice), and, with luck, she will give birth nine months later to that desirable mix of husband and wife that motivated her in the first place.
If she would rather not weather the abortion, if some remnant of stigma still attaches, and she wishes to avoid the embarrassment of explaining a pregnancy that suddenly disappears, she can have her cloned embryo implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother, who will then carry the child to be aborted. After in vitro fertilization of one or more of the harvested eggs, our mother-to-be need only bear the child she originally bargained for, never having to suffer the sight, sound, or touch of the aborted clone. In our future, I see wombs for rent and eggs for sale.
This scenario, in terms of its moral depravity, doubles the transgression, involving as it does both cloning and abortion. But are there those among us who would be willing, even eager, to forego the abortion and settle for the clone? It is tempting to assume that only the most egomaniacal among us would care to watch the image of himself grow up all over again. But considering the prevalence (and gradual acceptance) of those other reproductive evils already mentioned, I do not think the impulse would be limited to personalities of this type, and that we would do well not to underestimate either the narcissism or the opportunism of our next-door neighbor. Herewith, I’d like to offer a few scenes from the nightmare I see on the horizon.
Sex & Reproduction
What would happen, for example, to traditional marriage and the sexual ethic it represents and depends upon? Nearly one-half of all marriages end in divorce, so the word “traditional” no longer carries its former weight. That beating heart of marriage, our sense of commitment, that a promise made is a promise kept, is already sclerotic, and ripe for further corruption.
Cloning—even more than contraception, IVF, and abortion—is the ultimate tool for severing sex from reproduction. A woman will no longer need a man in order to have children. She might borrow, or purchase, his DNA if she desires a male child, but she will not need the man himself. The man, however, will still need the woman’s womb. He can clone himself, but he can’t do it without her.
The feminization of society will be complete, and though I doubt it is quite what the feminists had in mind, it might just be their dream come true, for it will finally, once and for all, free them from even the faintest sense of dependency or whiff of patriarchy. A man’s sperm will have no purpose in life. If she need no longer surrender herself to him in the bedroom, her claim of equality has passed over into superiority. It is not hard to imagine the corrosive effect that this will have on a marriage.
But surely, it might be objected, you exaggerate. What appeal would cloning have for married couples? Wouldn’t they still want that mix of endowments you referred to earlier? I’m not saying everyone will go for it, but many will. Normal reproduction is risky. We never know what is going to happen when chromosomes intertwine. The kid could turn out defective in any number of ways.
But living people are known quantities. We know if they carry any genetic illness, whether or not they are healthy, beautiful, or smart. When people see that cloning is more reliable, a better bet, many will go for the sure thing. A wife might say to her husband, “We’ll clone me this year and you the next.” That way neither will feel cheated. Of course, each spouse might have cause to worry when the child reaches sexual maturity, for each will be looking at the mirror image of the young man or woman he or she once married. Things could get complicated, and ugly, of which I will treat more shortly.
But what about the love they share? Won’t that inhibit the desire to clone? Wouldn’t they rather take the risk that comes with sexual love than the certainty that comes without it? People will still want to have sex, as they always have. They will still feel the drive, but not for the purpose of making children. The purpose will be purely recreational, to satisfy the drive and nothing more. Lust will reign, but then it already does. Our current deployment of contraception, with abortion forming the rearguard, has already won this field.
Which leads me to some questions of my own, and I offer them as such because, though I cannot see with a prophet’s infallibility, the likelihood of their being answered in ways we would not want does not seem entirely out of the question.
(1) Since cloning will confer a bell-ringing sense of finality upon the severance of sex from reproduction, what will be the point of marriage? A woman will still be attracted to a man, but with his masculine presence no longer forming a part of the essence of the union, how long might we expect her to cleave to this one man?
(2) Cloning will allow us to realize Jocelyn Elders’s utopian vision: “every child a wanted child.” Though some may end up unwanted, none will come to us unplanned. The child will be a manufactured product, procured for its predictability. He will belong to, or be owned by, his parents in a way that previous generations were not. Will he be seen more as property than as person? What will be the mother’s attitude toward the clone in her womb? Will her maternal joy be unmitigated, or greatly attenuated by the knowledge that his emergence into the world will have about it no air of surprise nor the sense of an irreplaceable gift?
(3) Since sex will be for fun and nothing but fun, will there be anything left of love in the sexual act between man and wife, any of that longing to lose oneself in the other, of that almost primordial physical yearning, which has its origin in the spirit, to become “one flesh”? I would offer an assertion rather than a question: only in the unrecognized and now irrelevant recesses of their souls.
(4) Since sex will be for fun and nothing but fun, why should a married couple consider the intimacy of the marriage bed to be of special importance? Why not yield, in concert, to the temptation to experiment? Why should jealousy be allowed a role to play when there is no need for it? Would wife- and husband-swapping parties become more common? What about neighborhood orgies in which the participants are like-minded parents of clones?
(5) And since sex will be for fun, etc. . . . remember the hideous scenario alluded to earlier, that in which, say, the father one day finds himself gazing upon his sexually mature cloned daughter who is now very nearly the spitting image of the woman he married? A daughter in whose future he sees no role for sex besides . . . fun?
Will he and his wife, the clone’s “mother,” experience the necessary repugnance that would dissuade them from thinking that there are none better suited to the task than they of introducing this child to the pleasures of the flesh? Will benevolent incest become socially acceptable when the reproductive complications no longer exist? Will the eroticisation of the young, well underway already, finally lose all boundary and become reality for those who, thus far, have merely fantasized about it?
I remember in years past seeing representatives of NAMBLA (the National Man-Boy Love Association) invited onto the sets of respectable talk shows like ABC’s Nightline to explain their position, the invitation itself conferring some level of legitimacy. Members of the intelligentsia are at work writing books and scholarly articles that condescendingly explain that sex between adults and children need not be the traumatic, soul-searing experience that most of us think. The machinery for further “progress” in this area is already in place.
(6) Will some couples become jaded to the thought of reproducing themselves and prefer instead to bear the child of someone else’s completely unrelated DNA? Why not? They might wish to confer upon their child a beauty they do not themselves possess. I see the DNA of the brainy and the beautiful going to the highest bidder. The ugly and the plain among us will no longer elicit the virtues of empathy and compassion. Imperfection will be poorly tolerated.
And would such a child seem more, or less, of a tool to them than one of their own inheritance? More, I should think (and less a tool than a toy), since they might actually harbor some tenderness toward the sight of their own flesh.
Still, it is impossible to know with certainty how much of an appeal cloning will have for married couples. The permutations seem endless, the complexities of the human psyche unfathomable, the threads of our emotions forever tangled, our capacity for the depraved as yet unplumbed, the depth and ultimate direction of our spiritual longings unforeseen.
We can safely say only that some will cling with the conviction of saints to the timeless heritage, and some will not. And at present, there is no legal barrier restraining the latter. For I am concerned not only about the possible effects of cloning on the traditional family structure, but also about the possibility of its destruction.
Imagine, for example, the enormous appeal this technology will have for single people: those whom love has passed by, or those women who have pursued careers into middle age before suddenly remembering they wanted children as well. As the duration of the marriage vow continues to shorten, the number of single-parent families will begin to compete seriously with that of traditional families. The law and subsequent court decisions will accommodate themselves to the new reality, as they did so readily in the matter of divorce and abortion. The moral dilemmas confronting single people will not, I think, differ much from those of married couples, especially if many traditional marriages dissolve into single-parent arrangements once the corrupting power of cloning has taken effect.
But there is a group that will offer a very interesting variation on this theme: the homosexuals. Even now they agitate for the right to adopt, for they are (they think) as qualified to be parents as heterosexuals. The agitation for parenthood finds as its logical corollary (though it puts the cart before the horse) the right to marry, because, even for homosexuals, marriage and parenthood seem somehow to go together.
That this is a concession to the traditional construct of marriage does not fall into their line of vision. They see a light at the end of the tunnel and are blinded by it. And now, with the Supreme Court having struck down the Texas anti-sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas, it seems certain that if cloning becomes available before that Court forces homosexual marriage upon us, the marriage issue will have been settled by circumstance. The debate will be over.
For with children no longer the fruit of a sexual union, they will not need parents but caretakers. With sex finding its sole purpose in the fulfillment of an urge and in the satisfaction of desire, in fun, we will have no means of measuring the superiority of one kind of sex over another. There will be no reason not to grant homosexuals their wish to marry. I believe that to this group in particular cloning will have an irresistible appeal. Banking on their belief in a biological basis for their orientation, they will have suddenly at their disposal a means of increasing their numbers and reducing that distressing ratio between straights and gays in society that currently prevails.
Many claim right now, especially those already serving as parents, that they’d have no wish to influence their children one way or the other. I’m afraid I don’t believe them. Some may be sincere, now, today, but cloning will not permit such sincerity, for an ulterior motive will be embedded within the act itself. A homosexual man who believes his homosexuality is biologically ordained, and who attempts to clone himself (or a companion), is expecting to bring into the world someone who is exactly like the original. The personality may be different, but the orientation (if the theory is correct) will be the same.
Homosexuals, being human like the rest of us, will not be able to resist this temptation. Because their unions are unnatural in their origin, they will resemble a traditional marriage even less than the sexually convenient, childless liaisons of heterosexuals, but we will no longer have the moral ground to say so, for they will reproduce in the same way as everyone else.
And so I maintain that the birth of cloning will mean the death of marriage. This is what happens when children are separated from the sexual embrace of man and woman, when the acts of the body are separated from the soul. Whether parents are homosexual or heterosexual, it is the children who will end up the victims (as they have since the onslaught of the contraceptive culture), children who can never look in the mirror and say to themselves, as our mothers said to us: There is not now, never has been, and never will be anyone in the universe exactly like you.
Maybe we won’t go down this road after all. With a little luck, or perhaps I should say with prayer and fasting and the grace of God, we will turn back, return to our true origins, and that other road will end up being the one not taken.
“The End of Sex As We Know It” first appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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