The business of playing God — Part 1

Recent scientific developments suggest that human cloning is now technically possible. Britain has just legalized it for very restricted research purposes, while in the United States a number of privately funded attempts to clone a human being are underway.

Clearly, there are likely to be a number of difficulties and false starts before human cloning is feasible on a consistent basis. Nevertheless, it seems likely that within five years this will be possible. The ethical and social issues involved have been widely debated, but few seem to have considered the business opportunities that the development of human cloning will offer.

In addition, two other human genetic engineering techniques are only a little further from fruition. First, within two decades it is likely to become possible to manipulate the gene pattern of an embryo in such a way that, while other characteristics are kept constant, a single characteristic or group of characteristics, such as intelligence, can be enhanced. Second, not very much further in the future, lies the possibility of genetically building from scratch a being which is entirely artificially designed.

All three possibilities are attacked, often vehemently, as “man playing God”. Very well then, let us set aside the ethical issues for a moment, and consider the potential business of playing God. How big will it be, and what will be its characteristics? In Part 1, I look at the market for cloning itself; Part 2, which will appear later this week, will examine the markets for genetic manipulation and de novo creation of life.

Current estimates of the cost of human cloning in the early years suggest that it will be of the order of $200,000, with only a modest discount for further clones of the same genetic pattern. Cloning, therefore, is a technique likely to be outside the financial reach of most people.

However, despite its considerable cost, there is a distinct marketing advantage that cloning enjoys: its appeal to human vanity.
Conventional reproduction suffers from the immense disadvantage to the truly vain individual in that it dilutes his or her genes with those of another person. Moreover, it generally entails a lifetime partnership with the other gene donor. To a 30-year-old in love, this may seem no disadvantage. At 70, with — perhaps — a number of failed marriages already in the past, things may look different.

By cloning, the wealthy can reproduce with absolute fidelity their presumptively superior contribution to the human gene pool. What is more, such reproduction can be repeated many times, limited only by the budget of the donor. Since — it appears — the great majority of self-made multi-millionaires are truly vain, the demand for the product is potentially substantial.

In addition, there will be the cost of the surrogate mother, who must bear the embryo created to term. The current cost of surrogacy is in the $10,000 to $20,000 range, but this may increase if demand increases.

Moreover, there is the cost of upkeep and upbringing. The parents of conventional offspring can expect to shell out around $500,000 for a good middle-class childhood, including college, but an elderly clone parent might have to budget considerably more since professional help will be needed as the child grows up.

Cloning is thus likely to be generally restricted to those with a net worth in the range of $2.5 or 3 million, and high-multiple cloning, of 10 or more reproductions (perfectly technically feasible) will be restricted to those with $20 million plus. However, according to Internal Revenue Service data (of course, conservative), there were 378,000 individuals in the United States with net worth of $2.5 million in 1995, the last year for which data are available.

Assuming a 20 percent penetration rate for the product, and an average of 1.5 clones per customer, this would give a total U.S. cloning market of say 113,400 clones for the current generation, say 11,340 per annum for a value, for the procedure alone, of over $2.25 billion per annum. Not a gigantic market, but well worth a substantial investment, particularly as there will be equivalent markets in all wealthy countries where the procedure is legal.

In addition to the market for the cloning process itself, there will be a market for surrogate motherhood of around the same size. While demand at this level could probably be satisfied within the United States without driving up costs excessively, there will probably be an export market for this service in the Third World, since the higher relative value of the fees involved will attract better quality surrogates, with lower risk of drug or other anti-embryo habits.

The other new market which will evolve from cloning will be that for child upbringing. Elderly donors, reproducing their own genetic code, will be exceptionally keen to ensure that the cloned child is given a proper educational and social background, which they may not be sure of being able to provide themselves because of their advanced age. Accordingly, whole-childhood Etons or Grotons will be set up, guaranteeing the finest possible foster and educational care for the cloned children, with them mixing only with nannies, teachers and other children from appropriate social backgrounds. This luxury service can be expected to cost around $50,000 per child per annum for a total of about $1 million until the child graduates from college. The service might be required by perhaps half of those undertaking a cloning procedure, for perhaps on average half of the cloned child’s upbringing; thus the total market will be of the order of 28,350 children, or over $14 billion, more than five times the market for the cloning procedure itself.

All this assumes — of course — that cloning humans will be legal in the United States. Here, we venture into ethical and legal questions. It is likely, in my view, that the advent of reliable cloning techniques will cause a storm of protest, both from religious groups, and from equal-rights advocates, who will assert, correctly, that cloning procedures, because of their cost, are likely to be imbalanced between the ethnic groups.

While such opposition may cause this procedure to be made illegal in the United States, cloning is likely to be legal both in some European countries and in locations such as the Caribbean tax havens which cater to the wealthy. Only rigorous opposition, using U.S. diplomatic power to try and stamp out cloning worldwide, and preventing cloned children from claiming U.S. citizenship, could potentially suppress the substantial potential demand for the procedure. In my view, such an effort is unlikely to succeed in the long run. Hence the cloning market, while it may initially suffer from legal obstacles, is likely over time to become a fully legal and accepted part of the United States and other advanced economies.

Read part 2 here


This article originally appeared on United Press International.