Thursday, January 26, 2023

Clones as Organ Donors

I've recently read an excellent novel called NEVER LET ME GO, by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. (I've seen the film adaptation of the latter, but I don't plan to watch the movie of NEVER LET ME GO. The story just strikes me as too depressing to view as a dramatization, without being filtered through the narrator's voice as in the book—and I generally LIKE sad stories.) NEVER LET ME GO traces the youth and coming-of-age of children cloned for the sole purpose of serving as organ donors. Kathy, the narrator, and her friends have always known, on some level, what their purpose and inevitable destiny are, but their vague awareness becomes more explicit as they grow to adulthood. The reader learns about their world along with them, through extended reminiscences by Kathy, who as a young adult serves as a "carer" for other donors until she eventually has to assume the latter function herself. She knows once she progresses from carer to donor, she will probably live through three or at most four donations before she "completes," i.e., dies. The clones don't serve as donors for the specific individuals whose DNA they share (whose identities, of course, they never know) but as general organ banks. The characters we follow grow up in a sort of orphanage / boarding school, where they live a fairly good life; they later learn that theirs is one of the best group homes, whereas others treat their inmates worse. We never learn details about the other homes, the background of the cloning project, or the science underlying it. Nor do we find out how the public was induced to accept this radical development. The novel seems to take place in an alternate mid-twentieth-century. This version of England has pre-cellphone, pre-internet technology, yet judging from the apparent ages of older donors mentioned in passing, reliable human cloning has existed for well over twenty years.

The novel focuses on the relationships among the characters, their gradual discovery of the full truth about their own status, and the ethics of treating human beings as manufactured products. Therefore, it doesn't delve into the scientific dimensions of the cloning process. Toward the end of the book, a retired guardian (as their teachers are called) mentions controversies over whether the donors have souls. Nobody brings up the obvious fact that a clone is simply an identical twin conceived at a different time, who grows like any other person and is as human, with as much of a soul (if souls exist) as anybody else. Another unanswered question raised in the story is why the characters can't have babies. There's no biological reason for clones to be infertile. Are they genetically manipulated to be that way? Surgically sterilized in childhood?

Wouldn't it be more efficient for donors to provide spare parts specifically for the people from whom they're cloned? No risk of organ rejection that way. Some of Heinlein's imagined futures include clones produced to supply organs for their originals. In these books, it's clear the cloned bodies never come alive, are never persons at all but only inert shells. One such body is used in THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST to fake the death of Lazarus Long's mother. In principle, an individual could achieve immortality by having his or her brain transplanted into a cloned body when the birth body wears out.

For most purposes, though, why grow a whole body at all? Surely it would be easier to develop cloning technology that could generate particular organs as needed. You could get a new heart, liver, kidney, or whatever with your own DNA and with none of the ethical issues involved in mass-producing live, conscious people to serve as spare-part factories.

So, although NEVER LET ME GO raises fascinating issues, and its characters' plight is deeply moving, it doesn't seem to me a likely portrayal of a realistic scenario.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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