The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Cloning Humans in a Free Society

Does the Jeffersonian Perspective contain sufficient insights to provide answers for a thoroughly modern problem such as the cloning of human beings? Do Jefferson's principles furnish at least a hint to suggest what national policy should be on such a cutting-edge issue?

I think they do. The principles upon which this nation was founded were derived from an understanding of human nature and the political relationships of man in society. These principles are as enduring as the best that have come down to us from the past, whether the philosophy of Aristotle or the ethical teachings of Jesus or similar teachings from scores of wise men from all ages, both East and West. All of these teachings exist, not as rigid dogmas to be accepted from eternal authorities, but as insights to be tried and tested, to be understood and debated, to be lived-by or discarded. We embrace them, not because of their intrinsic authority, but because of the genuine wisdom they contain.

If Jefferson's principles did not have application to the issue of cloning, then they might all be suspect. We might wonder if their foundation were laid in immutable human nature, or in the passing intellectual fashion of a time long past. We might even feel justified in discarding them and seeking some modern prophet who might reconstruct our national political philosophy based on whatever seems right given the circumstances of today.

Hence, whether or not Jefferson can speak to us on the issue of cloning can be as important as whether or not his principles are valid for any other issue for which we seek answers.

What, then, is the central issue that concerns us? What is it about cloning that forces us to make a national decision regarding it?

Human cloning means that at some time in the near future, we probably will be able to remove the DNA from the cells of one human being and insert them into an existing human zygote, replacing its own DNA. The result will be a human embryo with the genetic characteristics of the DNA donor. This new human embryo, when developed, will be the precise equivalent to an identical twin of the DNA donor. That, in essence, is what human cloning means.

The existence of this dramatic possibility, however, causes deep concern with a large number of people. For many, it raises some of the same issues that are raised by abortion: one genetic mechanism that has the possibility of developing into a human being with certain characteristics will be destroyed and replaced by a different genetic mechanism, and that destruction represents for some the "killing" of a human being. Of course, it could be considered, not the killing of a human, but merely the switching of that human's genetic inheritance, since there was a live zygote before the process, and there is a live zygote after the process. In fact, there never was a fully-developed human being to kill. Only its genetic inheritance was changed before it developed finally into a human being.

To others, human cloning forces a confrontation with the unknown, and is frightening for that reason alone. Such an intervention that alters human destiny itself introduces dramatic changes that many are afraid to deal with. Most of this arises from a simple fear of change itself. Many of these people are disturbed by any change or new technology, and cling to the existing present in a hope that it will forever remain the same.

For still others, this new possibility evokes all kinds of irrational and unfounded fears. Might not this add to the problem of overpopulation (as though any sane person would want to have 50 copies of themselves to clothe, house and feed until they were of an age to tend to their own care)? Isn't this interfering with and fighting against Nature (as though every advance in technology was not such an interference)? Aren't such persons unlikely to be accepted as humans with rights equal to others (as though identical twins have fewer rights than single births)?

Even more imaginative persons envision a race of super-humans, a society dominated by Einsteins, armies of super-soldiers, or brain-dead zombies used for harvesting human parts, or even mindless Frankensteinian monsters who will do the evil bidding of their creators. Most of these absurd images arise from people who confuse human cloning with genetic engineering, or who fail to realize that ordinary law and order can prevent all the exaggerated possibilities they fear.

For religious conservatives, this not only raises issues similar to the abortion issue, but it represents an interference in natural processes that seems to be contrary to the established order of Creation. The Bible and church teachings describe the composition of the family together with the admonition to procreate. Cloning is not a part of religious dogma. But if history teaches us anything, it is that religious conservatism has almost always been in opposition to the advancement of science. It would be truly surprising if such a reactionary group were to embrace something as forward-looking as human cloning.

    Embracing Change

The determining factor in considering this question is surely the matter of change and scientific advancement. Will we embrace it, or will we resist it? Will we permit the development of the new, or will we compel all to hold on to the old and familiar? Shall we prohibit new things because some group thinks they are a threat, or shall we confine such prohibitions to those innovations which promise to violate the equal rights of another?

Jefferson always came down on the side of the advancement of knowledge. As he said about himself when he was younger,

    "I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814.

The advancement of knowledge not only was not feared by Jefferson; he actively welcomed it.

    "I am not myself apt to be alarmed at innovations recommended by reason. That dread belongs to those whose interests or prejudices shrink from the advance of truth and science." --Thomas Jefferson to John Manners, 1814.

Shall our laws suppress the advancement of science? Shall our institutions accommodate change, or will they act as a bulwark against innovation?

    "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.

These fears of the new are always present, but they are just empty scarecrows to be brushed aside.

    "Time and advancing science will ripen us all in its course and reconcile all to wholesome and necessary changes." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1824.

After all, Jefferson asks, when we make institutional changes,

    "will our natures be changed?" --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1798.

Of course not! We, our rights and our duties remain the same, in spite of technological innovation. But aren't some changes for the worse? Mustn't we be cautious, and not rush in upon change like fools?

    "The precept is wise which directs us to try all things, and hold fast that which is good." --Thomas Jefferson to William Drayton, 1788.

It is by exercising caution, not by refusing to experiment, that beneficial change is brought about. To forbid investigation in certain areas is acting blindly. A sensible approach is to investigate freely and openly, while at the same time considering all the factors involved.

    "Where thought is free in its range, we need never fear to hazard what is good in itself." --Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Olgilvie, 1811.

What we are faced with in the cloning of humans question is the same old resistance to change, the same old opposition that is raised every time to the advancement of science and its effects upon our society.

    "Those who [advocate] reformation of institutions pari passu with the progress of science [maintain] that no definite limits [can] be assigned to that progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, [deny] improvement and [advocate] steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they [represent] as the consummation of wisdom and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813.

Jefferson himself was a man of science, and made many contributions to agricultural science. He looked to the advancement of learning as a good, not an evil.

    "When I contemplate the immense advances in science and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were, and they than the burners of witches." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, 1818.

A free society is most conducive to advancements in science. The suppression of scientific advancement is not only unbecoming to a free nation, it is ultimately detrimental and can only hinder its progress.

    "Liberty... is the great parent of science and of virtue; and a nation will be great in both always in proportion as it is free." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Willard, 1789.
This question of cloning humans, then, tests the extent of our commitment to a free and open society.

    The Opposition of Religion to Science

The opposition to the advancements of science by religion is hardly anything new. Down through the ages, it has been opposed to the many of the great advances and frequently persecuted scientists and tried to suppress their discoveries.

    "I am for encouraging the progress of science in all its branches, and not for raising a hue and cry against the sacred name of philosophy; for awing the human mind by stories of raw-head and bloody bones to a distrust of its own vision, and to repose implicitly on that of others; to go backwards instead of forwards to look for improvement; to believe that government, religion, morality and every other science were in the highest perfection in the ages of the darkest ignorance, and that nothing can ever be decided more perfect than what was established by our forefathers." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.

One of the striking characteristics of this nation has been the interest the American people have shown in advancing the frontiers of knowledge.

    "The Gothic idea that we were to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion and in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion and government by whom it has been recommended, and whose purposes it would answer. But it is not an idea which this country will endure." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1800.

The alliance between religion and the state, which discouraged the progress of science in the past, no longer exists in this country.

    "This doctrine ["that the condition of man cannot be ameliorated, that what has been must ever be, and that to secure ourselves where we are we must tread with awful reverence in the footsteps of our fathers"] is the genuine fruit of the alliance between Church and State, the tenants of which finding themselves but too well in their present condition, oppose all advances which might unmask their usurpations and monopolies of honors, wealth and power, and fear every change as endangering the comforts they now hold." --Thomas Jefferson: Report for University of Virginia, 1818.

The education practiced in America is not that of indoctrination, but that of the free marketplace of ideas.

    "The barbarians really [flatter] themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science [are] proscribed as innovations. They [pretend] to praise and encourage education, but it [is] to be the education of our ancestors." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1801.

Try as it might, religion is not likely to return this nation to the days when it had the power to suppress the advancement of science.


The Jeffersonian perspective would suggest that scientific advancements, including even the cloning of human beings, proceed with sensible caution, but with hopeful expectation. An outright prohibition is surely contrary to the spirit of a free society. The American spirit is one of progress and courage, not of fear of change.

    "I join [with others] in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advance." --Thomas Jefferson to William Green Mumford, 1799.

If past experience suggests anything, it is that the progress of the human mind proceeds indefinitely, that our advances today will only be superseded by the further advances of tomorrow.

    "[We] possess too much science not to see how much is still ahead of [us], unexplained and unexplored. [Our] own consciousness must place [us] as far before our ancestors as in the rear of our posterity." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, June 15, 1813.

The purpose of government is not to regulate and control the people in accordance with some religious dogma or behavioral philosophy. The purpose of government is to enforce our rights and duties and to leave the people free to discover their own destiny in peace and security.

    "Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their power: that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society, and this is all the laws should enforce on him; and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third. When the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions; and the idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society we give up any natural right. The trial of every law by one of these texts would lessen much the labors of our legislators and lighten equally our municipal codes." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816.

The directions a free society takes is determined by the people's own actions, not by some self-appointed moral czars. If any group of citizens doesn't like the course American society has chosen, their proper appeal is to the people themselves, not to a manipulation of courts and politicians in order to impose their beliefs on everyone else. In fact, any action prohibiting research in this area should be considered unconstitutional. Congress does not have the power to restrict the advancement of science, neither should it. This was not one of the powers granted by the Constitution. As Jefferson wrote,

    "I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That "all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people." [X Amendment] To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition." --Thomas Jefferson: National Bank Opinion, 1791.

Once Congress takes upon itself the power to suppress the advancement of science, we have ceased to be a free nation with a constitutionally limited government. Such an action would be wrong according to every measure.

Note: Visitors may be interested in a very sensible and well-written examination of the question of cloning human beings by a well-educated scientist at the following site:

The Case for Cloning Humans

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1997 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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