I treat reproductive human cloning as one of such things. Current technology is far from a success, and reproductive human cloning does not seem to be a near future possibility. So, any law against cloning seems to be a currently useless thing, like it's useless to promise someone not to punch their imaginary friends.

What's the point of such laws then? Why are they adopted?

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    Regarding the specific example of cloning humans: The first mammal was cloned over 20 years ago. In the past two decades, the reliability of the process was improved considerably and was applied to many other species. So it is not impossible. The technology exists. The only reason it wasn't applied to humans yet were ethical, economical and also legal restrictions on human experiments. Maybe you should pick a different example. – Philipp Oct 22 at 10:48
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    Many comments deleted. Comments are supposed to ask for clarifications or suggest improvements to the question. Please don't use comments to answer the question. If you want to answer, write a real answer instead. – Philipp Oct 22 at 14:37
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    What process do you propose to follow once this is technologically possible? Take the usual multi year thing to make laws against it and in the meantime we grow our clones? – PlasmaHH Oct 23 at 8:21
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    @rus9384 Jan. 24, 2018 Chinese scientists clone monkeys, break barrier to human cloning (source) – njuffa Oct 23 at 19:49
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    "I treat" = lost argument. Not everybody will treat it as such. – Ben Oct 23 at 20:40

11 Answers 11

up vote 196 down vote accepted

As I see it, there are fundamentally three reasons a person would outlaw an action that is currently impossible:

To ensure that the first attempt is illegal

If you refuse to outlaw an immoral act until it can be shown to be possible, you run the risk that a person can commit this act before it has been made illegal. Essentially, the legislative body doesn't want to risk the law falling behind the science.

To attempt to keep it impossible

The theory behind this is that if an action is illegal, there is less of a risk that a person will work out how to do it. Obviously, this reasoning can be taken to ridiculous levels but if there exists a credible possibility (in cloning, mammalian cloning has been possible for a long while) it can make sense to outlaw an act to dissuade people from working out how to do it.

To clearly show a moral objection

The law is not always about practicality – it can also be a way for a society to codify its cultural and moral beliefs. In this case, even if it seems unlikely that an actual human cloning could take place, it is a clear sign to the world that a specific nation sees the act as fundamentally wrong.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – yannis Oct 23 at 21:50

So, any law against cloning seems to be a currently useless thing, like it's useless to promise someone not to punch their imaginary friends.

The simple difference is that their imaginary friends will never exist.

Waiting until something is actually possible to make it illegal means that it is likely to occur, especially when you consider the time it takes to make a Bill law. Therefore it is far more sensible to make something you would not like to occur illegal as soon as it is plausible in the short to medium term.

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    @Wildcard but you don't need to promise not to punch big Bob ;-) – Orangesandlemons Oct 22 at 18:24
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    Not just more sensible, but easier. If you try to make an already possible thing illegal, the people who want to do that thing have a strong interest in trying to stop you (this is more likely to matter if the thing is potentially lucrative). If you try to make an impossible thing illegal, there isn't a ready-made opposition of thing-doers out to fight you on it. – Zach Lipton Oct 24 at 6:44
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    @ZachLipton Not really. There can be lots of investment in something that's currently impossible - to make it possible in the future. Say, fusion power or self-driving cars - both things that can easily be outlawed in the future, are currently "impossible" and have tons of vested interests. Your argument would only work for outlawing things long before anyone develops any interest in them - but then how would you know what to outlaw in the first place? Outlawing things like human cloning is clearly more about "Damn, this could be used to clone humans, which is a can of worms! Stop it now!" – Luaan Oct 24 at 12:53

A fairly large one is that

Nobody has considered all the legal ramifications yet

You brought up cloning as an example so let's run with that. This article goes over why we can't clone humans yet and notes this rather large show-stopper

[G]iven the science we have now, it would still require a significant number of failed human pregnancies, so many that it’s hard to imagine ethics committees allowing the research to happen. Stem cell biologist Yi Zhang, whose work solved the blocked gene problem, pointed out to Tech Review that the process of creating just two long-tailed macaque monkeys required 63 surrogate mothers and 417 eggs, all of which resulted in just six pregnancies.

There's several major ethical considerations here

  1. Harvesting eggs. Too often the risks are glossed over but there are some serious downsides

    Unlike the process men undergo to donate sperm, the preparation and procedure involved in egg donation require a longer-term commitment — a woman’s body is hormonally altered through the process, and she undergoes surgery.

    I’d like to see ads note that fact, along with the known risks of egg donation. The ads don’t mention ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), a condition that causes the ovaries to swell and become painful in about one-fourth of women who use injectable fertility drugs. (OHSS generally goes away after a week or so, but in severe cases it can cause rapid weight gain, abdominal pain, vomiting and shortness of breath.)

    Nor do they mention that the surgery to remove the eggs can sometimes lead to complications, including cramping, bleeding and infection.

  2. Surrogacy and surrounding risks. As noted above, monkey surrogacy needed 63 surrogates to undergo as many as 417 implant attempts just to get 6 viable pregnancies. On top of that, Dolly the sheep (first cloned animal) was the only normal sheep of the entire experiment to survive and develop normally. Doing this with humans may result in the creation of lots of deformed children, not to mention the risks to the women doing this (lots of miscarriages, plus the physical and emotional toll of that).

  3. Who owns the result? Unlike In-Vitro Fertilization with surrogacy, you've got a genetically engineered individual whose existence is due to the hard work of someone else. Can a company own a person that they helped create?

  4. Unauthorized cloning. What if someone were to clone a famous person? Does the cloned person have any right to destroy the unauthorized clone? What about removing the clone from the parent(s) they have?

There's a lot of thorny issues to hammer out. A pre-emptive law making the underlying act illegal bypasses them all.

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    @rus9384 So you expect my company to invest a few billion dollar into cloning thousands of slave laborers and then wait for the government to tell us if it is legal or not to force them to work? – Philipp Oct 22 at 15:59
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    @rus9384 See? Cloning is still impossible, and yet here you are, suggesting legislation for how to regulate it. – Philipp Oct 22 at 17:07
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    @rus9384 Several works of speculative fiction (notably Kazuo Ishiguro's Never let me go and the Ewan MacGregor film The Island presuppose clones not counting as human. Consider these as warnings. As to legality, some people consider foetuses to be fully human at the moment of conception, so for them there is no moral difference between abortion or experiments on terminated foetuses, and what that fiction depicts. – Graham Oct 22 at 17:33
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    @Baard Kopperud A clone and their DNA donor are no more "the same person" as, say, "identical" twins are. They might look similar, but they're still individuals. Being genetically related, the clone might be considered a child of the donor, but that's about it. Although, it wouldn't be the first time that lawmakers base their understanding of a scientific topic on popular fiction. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 23 at 7:56
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    @Graham: "the Ewan MacGregor film The Island presuppose clones not counting as human" - if I recall correctly, the world outside of the facility was kept mostly in the dark about the clones being conscious individuals rather than mindless human-shaped tissue. To me, that insinuated quite strongly that the practice of treating conscious clones with less rights than humans was, in fact, very much illegal in that setting. – O. R. Mapper Oct 24 at 12:51

One factor not yet mentioned in the other answers is that legislators do not draft laws purely for the effects they will have when implemented, but also for the effect which announcing them as policy will have on voters.

If I know that my key demographics believe strongly in something, regardless of the reality of the situation, then I would want to announce policies which align with those beliefs. If the counter position is weakly held, then this will often translate into law with very little active effort.

To use your example, many people believe that cloning is the worst of scientists "playing god", especially when it comes to human cloning. In an attempt to win votes, Politician 1 announces their objection to human cloning during a campaign. Politician 2 looks at their voter demographics and finds that there is no strong feeling either way, so they fight Politician 1 on other points, not on cloning. If Politician 1 wins, then anti-cloning legislation is easy to implement, due to the lack of strong resistance, and can be used to show that they keep their campaign promises.

  • Sadly, this is the calculus that is probably the most common... – Brett Zamir Oct 27 at 6:41

In your cited case, to forestall further research being put into the subject.

If the activity is deemed illegal, then most research organizations that might work on this are excluded, and progress is greatly diminished.

That won't stop someone or some organization from pursuing human cloning, but it will insure that the research centers of the EU and US won't be contributing to that.

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    @rus9384: And that's part of the reason you're not seeing the point. The way you treat laws is not quite congruent with (and is largely irrelevant to) how societies and governments treat laws. – cHao Oct 22 at 19:10
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    @rus9384: You don't need to treat them the same, as you are not a society or a government. But if you want any hope of understanding the real world, you do need to at least acknowledge and accept the discrepancy. Systems and individuals function on fundamentally different levels; what works for you and what works for a government in charge of millions of people are often very different things, and it is often a category error to compare the two. – cHao Oct 22 at 20:34
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    @rus9384: If you understand all those things, then what was the point of the question? A government's understanding of laws makes the answers obvious. – cHao Oct 22 at 20:43
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    @rus9384: A government's understanding of laws is pretty much exactly an understanding of the reasons behind them. What answer were you expecting that doesn't inherently and inevitably boil down to the very things governments use laws for? – cHao Oct 22 at 20:57
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    @rus9384: Android hookers are sex toys, which are already regulated in a number of ways. And blasters are likewise already pretty well covered under existing firearms and munitions laws. Human clones aren't. As for human cloning, the reasons against it involve public policy (like avoiding the bunch of dead humans from the dozens to hundreds of initial attempts) and nipping thorny legal issues in the bud. (The legal status of the first clone is just one such issue.) Turns out these are some of the very reasons governments pass laws. – cHao Oct 22 at 21:18

Another fantastic example of this phenomena comes from China. It is illegal to reincarnate there! Why would an officially atheist government pass such a law?

Tibet. The Dalai Lama, the religious and cultural leader of Tibet, is said to be reincarnated. When the current Dalai Lama dies and "reincarnates", whoever claims to be the new Dalai Lama can be charged with a crime.

(When looking for a source, it appears it is a bit more complicated and you can actually apply for permission to reincarnate from the government?) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_Religious_Affairs_Bureau_Order_No._5

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    Wild! Likewise there are things that people believe are possible and ban (e.g. sorcery which is a regular reason for executions in Saudi Arabia), even though they aren't possible. – ohwilleke Oct 23 at 1:06
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    I'm guessing Dr. Who is not on in China. – Oscar Bravo Oct 26 at 14:21

There's a difference between something that's physically impossible and something that's technologically impossible.

If something is physically impossible, there's no need to prohibit it, because no one will ever violate it. Although if there's likely danger from trying it, you might want to prohibit attempts, to protect the subjects of the experiments from that risk.

But if something is technologically impossible at the current time, you may be able to envision scientists and engineers overcoming those limits in time. If you believe that you won't want to allow it when it becomes possible, it makes sense to pass the law against it now, rather than waiting until after the fact. This might be especially true if you're concerned that the party in power when it becomes possible would have a different view, and wouldn't prohibit it then.

It might also be easier to pass the law now. Since no one has skin in the game yet, there's likely to be weaker opposition to it. There won't be any lobbying groups, for instance.

  • Re If something is physically impossible, there's no need to prohibit it. The US Patent Office prohibits patents on perpetual motion machines. (Exception: Build it, demonstrate that it works, and convince the examiner that it does violate the laws of thermodynamics.) The European Patent Office goes a bit further, prohibiting patents "alleged to operate in a manner clearly contrary to well-established physical laws, e.g. a perpetual motion machine." – David Hammen Oct 25 at 21:27
  • That's not a law, is it, just a procedural regulation? It makes it easy for patent examiners to reject these applications out of hand, rather than having to perform details analysis to determine whether they're valid. – Barmar Oct 25 at 21:45
  • If you actually got a perpetual motion machine to violate physics you wouldn't fart about with patents, you'd refrain from sharing it and simply take over the world. And all the other worlds. – Peter Wone Oct 26 at 1:21
  • @PeterWone That assumes you have the resources to build it yourself. Your plan might be to patent it and then license it to a manufacturer. – Barmar Oct 26 at 1:23
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    @DavidHammen Refusing to provide patent protection for an invention is NOT the same as making it illegal. – barbecue Oct 26 at 15:09

There are some excellent answers above but sometimes using a more extreme example helps clarify the issue so instead of human cloning, let's take the example of a human/animal hybrid. As far as we know, no one has created a full human/animal hybrid with human level intelligence but just like human cloning, it is likely possible. Also, just like with human cloning, there are already numerous laws outlawing and regulating it. One of the main reasons is the ethical problems with having something that is not human but no longer what we would consider an animal either. Should a highly intelligent mouse or monkey be allowed to reproduce, vote, etc...? It's easier to prevent it from happening in the first place than to have to deal with what happens after it exists.

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    Well, I guess androids can become intelligent too (Detroit: Become Human, of course). Or what if intelligent aliens exist? Taking a right to reproduce from any being for simply being something different is wrong to me, though. Anyway, I appreciate this example. But it does not really answer why is there a need in such laws right now. – rus9384 Oct 22 at 19:02
  • The right to reproduce is a major issue for a new species because if you allow reproduction you would quickly have a second species of intelligent life on earth and all the problems that come along with that. It's not even completely theoretical as one of the few animals we can effectively communicate with has repeatedly asked for a baby: koko.org/node/1889 It's the reason that laws about human/animal chimeras have special restrictions when it involves the brain. As for why there are laws right now, it's pretty hard to outlaw a clone/hybrid once it's a living breathing person. – Jongab Oct 29 at 18:58
  • And laws hardly will stop that. It will be veiled until the cloned person will be adult. I don't think it's unlikely. – rus9384 Oct 29 at 19:03

While cloning a human hasn't yet been done, it's definitely not impossible. If fact, the necessary technology to start a human cloning experiment is already available. I'm not saying that such an experiment is guaranteed to be a success, but I wouldn't exclude this possibility either. Compare this with a manned flight to Mars: nobody's been to Mars yet, but would you call flying to Mars "impossible"?

You don't refer to a specific law, but I'd hazard a guess that such laws forbid the very attempt to clone a human for a reproductive purpose, regardless of whether the attempt succeeds or not.

In essence, the law is there to prevent people from doing something they already can do, like investing in human cloning technologies. Passing such a law when the reproductive cloning becomes available would be too late: by then you'll have people who invested their money in the cloning business, and laws which deliberately drive people out of business is a sure way for a country to create a poor economic climate for years to come.

  • If the concern is whether or not it is ethical to experiment on humans it makes sense to prohibit experiments on human reproductive cloning. Not cloning itself. Experiments are definitely possible and they hardly would be succesful. Maybe the next milestone is to clone a chimpanzee. But they are getting human rights in last decades. And I disagree that commercial human cloning is possible. – rus9384 Oct 24 at 11:04
  • @rus9384 commercial human cloning is not available now, partially due to laws which prohibit it. But I don't see a reason to believe it's impossible. – Dmitry Grigoryev Oct 24 at 11:19
  • Whether a manned flight to Mars is currently impossible is an interesting question of semantics. Elon Musk has a detailed plan with answers to tough questions like how to pay for it. Funding failure is unlikely since SpaceX is making money hand over fist with commercial satellite launches on a cost structure competitors cannot match. All that money goes straight back into having their own private industrial revolution in launch technology. So is it "currently impossible" or "currently possible with a long lead time"? It's certainly when rather than if. – Peter Wone Oct 27 at 3:18

Some action being illegal before it's possible tends to slow or stifle it becoming possible in the first place. If it is a theoretical possibility, and the only thing in the way is regulation, then any work toward this illegal end is dubious at best and could possible bring legal action on it's own. The regulation is intended to keep the possibility of this from becoming practical and real. If there was a regulation like "It's illegal to accelerate to a speed higher than C", that would be ridiculous because it's not even theoretically possible. This probably hasn't stopped the Vogons from incorporating such a regulation in their Time-Space Velocity Act, however.

  • Makes sense. While I don't see the actual use from cloning itself I think it is also relevant to say about artificially created humans in general. I definitely see more pros than cons from that. And lest people point me towards Brave New World as this has nothing to do with propaganda or poisoning fetuses. So, therefore, ban on research sucks. – rus9384 Oct 22 at 21:50
  • @rus9384 No use for it? How about spare organs so perfectly compatible you don't need immunosuppressant drugs? All you need is pots of money and no qualms about killing your vat grown twin. – Peter Wone Oct 26 at 5:00
  • @PeterWone Please, give references showing it's possible. – rus9384 Oct 26 at 5:19
  • I didn't say human cloning is currently possible, I said it would be useful. If you mean show that cloned organs are perfectly compatible this is trivially demonstrated by the well documented transplant compatibility of identical twins. – Peter Wone Oct 27 at 3:06

Another aspect is to not upset voters and citizens. If I know that cloning or any other thing I might think of is illegal I won't go out and find investors and employees to create my business.

If I end up spending millions of dollars and hours in this endeavor and then somehow succeed with what everyone thought was impossible. Then the investors and everyone expects to gain a lot of money on it. But then suddenly they pass a law that it is illegal, then they will understandably be upset. This happens today with legislation still, but if you can be upfront with it then the better.

  • But this law can upset people already now. Especially because this law violates doctrine of precedent or, say, what we could call "good until proven bad", which would be an equivalent of "innocent until proven guilty" in a theoretical plane vs. practical. – rus9384 Oct 29 at 12:52

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