Editorial from the February 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
In her utopian novel Herland that was first published in 1915, Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes a society in which there have been no men for generations. Naturally, she had to assume that reproduction had become possible without the intervention of men.
In a work of literature this is of course quite acceptable but as late as 1994 her book was being criticised, somewhat humourlessly, on this point for not realising “that without the fertilisation by the male, the human race would atrophy and disappear”. As it has turned out that Gilman was not talking biological nonsense, not that in a work of utopian literature she was required to be entirely realistic: an all-woman society lasting generations is theoretically possible (whether it's desirable or likely are of course completely different matters).
In fact even in 1994 biologists knew that it was theoretically possible to reproduce a mammal asexually: by taking a cell from some of part of a body and substituting it for the nucleus of an egg cell. However, this method meant that the new individual would have exactly the same biological make-up as the individual from which the cell was taken, i.e. would be a clone. After a sheep was reproduced asexually in 1997 it was only a matter of time before a human would too. Now, allegedly, this has been done, by a clinic linked to a New Age sect.
Although there can be no objection in principle to the procedure involved – it's not playing god (since there is no god; life, including human life, wasn't created, it just evolved) – the question arises: what's the point? Why do it?
The Raelian sect say they are doing it because they believe that human life was introduced on Earth 25,000 years ago by aliens from outer space and that this is what these aliens want us to have done before they return. Obviously, this is complete nonsense, though not quite so nonsensical as the more widespread belief that some supernatural being created all life on Earth some 6,000 years ago. Others are trying to do it for more down-to-earth reasons: to make money. And that's the point under capitalism. If there's a profit to be made from something some “enterprising” person will come along and try to do it – and there is a market in providing babies for childless couples.
A fair number of commercial “fertility clinics” are already in the market and cloning might be a more acceptable procedure for some couples than those currently marketed. Hence the race to get there first and make above normal profits before others join in. The irony is that the commercially-motivated clinics may have been beaten to it by a group moved by other considerations. In fact, some of the criticism of the Raelians sounds like sour grapes as well as concern that they might have queered the pitch by provoking a backlash that will make not just commercial cloning but already marketed procedures more difficult.
Normally the media – whose aim is to make money from advertising – feign to believe that there might be something in the “paranormal” – UFOs, ghosts and other strange tales – as this has proved a good way to attract an audience and so advertising revenue. But when something serious is at issue they drop this pretence and admit, as their ridiculing of the Raelian beliefs shows, that they no more believe all this guff than do most of the rest of us.
Having said this, genetic engineering does raise problems of choice – ethical problems, as they are called – that would persist even in a socialist society. Which particular genetic disorders should be corrected, and how? How far can choosing the sex of a child go? Since there seems to be no point in it, will human cloning continue?
But the point is that in a socialist society these matters will be able to be debated and decided in a serene atmosphere, free from contamination by commercial considerations. For socialism will be a completely non-market, non-commercial society whose guiding principle will be human welfare and nothing but human welfare, not profit and money-making as is the case today.