How to raise cloned children without totally screwing them up

We've been thoroughly enjoying Orphan Black, BBC America's show about a young woman who discovers, to her shock, that she's a clone. But what if, instead of being an orphan with no knowledge of her genetic heritage, Sarah was raised by loving parents? How might they try to ensure she grew up to be a happy and fully autonomous person?

Photo Credit: Dan Foy.

Let's put aside for a moment whether it is ethical to clone a human being. It's easy to assume that a person who decides to clone themselves is an egomaniac who doesn't want to mix their genes with another person's. But there might be other reasons a parent might seek reproductive cloning: perhaps they have a child who needs a bone marrow transplant and a cloned child would provide the best match; perhaps they had a child with a partner who has since died and now want to have another child who combines their genes with their late partner's; perhaps they are unable to have a genetic child any other way. (Of course, improvements in biological technology, including for blood banking and the ability to create gametes and tissue from adult stem cells, could render some of these reasons moot.) But even assuming that a person decides to clone themselves for no reason other than to have a child who is solely genetically theirs, let's assume that they aim to be the best parent that they can be, and that they want to raise their child to be an autonomous person who doesn't feel stigmatized by being a clone.

What to Tell Cloned Children and When

One of the key questions that the biological and/or social parents of a cloned child might ask is when to tell children about their genetic background and what to say. Patrick Hopkins, Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Millsaps College who specializes in ethical issues related to science, medicine, and technology, suggested that we look at research into what to tell children who were adopted, birthed by surrogates, or conceived through in vitro fertilization. He specifically adds that, for example, when IVF first became available, there were concerns that the children conceived through IVF would somehow feel "artificial," and it might be especially valuable to see if social science research indicates how such concerns were counteracted.

"The Pediatrician’s Role in Supporting Adoptive Families," a clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, offers some significant insight into how children have different understandings of their familial relationships at different ages. The report states, "From the time a child is adopted, it is appropriate for families to use adoption language...on a routine basis. Using adoption language early helps to lay the groundwork for children to later understand these abstract concepts." Until they are three years old, however, most children don't understand the difference between being adopted and being raised by a biological family. At three, they begin to ask questions about their adoption and what it means, and at five, when many children enter school, they begin to realize that most of their peers are not adopted. As they get older, some time during ages six through 12, they understand that, in addition to gaining an adoptive family, they lost a biological one, and this realization can dredge up a host of emotional responses.

This clinical report serves as a good reminder that telling a child about their cloned status isn't a one-time deal; a child's understanding of what it means to be a clone will shift and change with time, as will their feelings about being conceived through cloning. Even if you start early to get your child accustomed to the abstract concept of cloning, they will need different kinds of information and emotional support over time.

When talking to children conceived through IVF, donor assistance, or surrogacy, the Center for Adoption Support and Education suggests offering age-appropriate explanations to children as they ask where babies come from. After explaining the basics of reproduction, the child's parent or parents might explain their particular story, explaining, for example, that sometimes a person's eggs or sperm don't work properly (or, in the cases of same-sex parents, aren't both available), or that the mother's body wasn't able to carry a baby, and that the parents sought a doctor's help. C.A.S.E. also suggests emphasizing that children born through IVF and surrogacy were born—just like everyone else is born.

For cloned children, the narrative would be a bit different, but the discussion would likely follow a similar script. It's difficult to explain genetics to a small child, but a parent could certainly explain that mommy or daddy's DNA was placed inside an egg, the egg placed inside a uterus, and the child was born just like any other child is born. The most important thing, bioethicist Linda MacDonald Glenn told us, is to reinforce for any child, no matter the circumstances of their entry into a family, that they are part of their family because they were very much wanted and are loved. "Certainly what you would want to avoid, though," she adds, "is saying something along the lines of 'Oh, you were made just in the image of me or Mom or Dad and so we're going to make sure you're just like them.'"

As cloned children grow older and better able to understand what it means to be cloned, it becomes important to let them know that DNA does not equal destiny. Glenn points out that we now know so much about how epigenetics, the microbiome, and other biological aspects impact our development. As cloned children grow up, it would be important to impress upon them that identical twins, for example, are distinct people despite sharing not only DNA but also a womb. Of course, parents of cloned children must also remember that as well.

C.A.S.E. adds that every child is different and that every child will have different responses to and emotional needs regarding their genetic background, and that it's important for parents to acknowledge they're children's feelings at all stages of their development:

Confusion, sadness, and pain are appropriate responses. Just as an adopted child may wish he had been born to his adoptive parents, a child conceived with donor assistance may experience a sense of loss that he is not biologically/genetically related to both parents. Rather than protecting children from painful feelings through secrecy, parents who disclose information need to believe that children can be helped to cope with painful feelings. Parents can convey to their children that they experienced similar feelings and that they can be counted on to understand and to help their children cope with these feelings.

C.A.S.E. also notes another issue for children conceived through IVF that might also apply to cloned children: the stigma of their conception. The nonprofit's guidelines on raising and supporting children conceived through IVF notes that parents should talk to their children about which adults are aware of their IVF status, and discussing together whom the child might want to tell about being conceived through IVF.

Value Children as Individuals—Whether or Not They're Clones

In 1990, Marissa Ayala was born. Anissa Ayala, then a teenager, suffered a rare form of leukemia and required a bone marrow transplant. When no suitable donor emerged, her parents decided to have another child, in the hopes that that child would be a match. When she was 14 months old, Marissa donated bone marrow to her older sister, and now, more than two decades later, Anissa remains cancer-free.

It was a controversial decision at the time: parents deciding to bring a child into the world for the express purpose of treating another child's illness. But in recent years, Marissa Ayala has spoken about her experience and her gratitude for being a part of her family. In a 2011 interview with the TODAY Show, Marissa Ayala said, "I believe that the people who are critical, the people who are judgmental don't know my family."

One of the striking things about the Ayala case was the sense that, even though the Ayalas were conceiving a child as a means to an end, in press articles from the time, they always seemed to regard Marissa as an end in and of herself as well. While the Ayalas may have had a curious preference for rhyming names, they also telegraphed a commitment to raising and loving their youngest child, regardless of the outcome for Anissa. Critics may have blasted the Ayalas for conceiving a child to serve as a bone marrow delivery system, but once she was born, they treated her as their beloved daughter. She wasn't merely spare parts; she was a child who would grow up to have her own personality, whims, and dreams.

Regardless of why a child was conceived through cloning—for therapeutic purposes, to maintain a specific genetic lineage—it would be important for their parent or parents to keep in mind that they are raising an individual child. Glenn reminds us that this isn't a problem limited to the parents of cloned children; parents are forever comparing their children to their siblings or themselves. "Actually, from my observation as a parent and also as a former divorce lawyer, it's a mistake biological parents make all the time," Glenn says. "You know, 'Oh, I like this,' or 'I have an affinity in this, so you should, too,' instead of necessarily recognizing that this is an individual who has their own likes or dislikes."

Researchers Barbara Prainsack and Tim D. Spector attempted to explore the impact being genetically identical to another person might have on a cloned child by interviewing a handful of identical and fraternal twins. They published the results of these interviews in their 2006 paper "Twins: A cloning experience," published in Social Science & Medicine. Identical twins reported that they felt their similar genetics had less bearing on their sense of identity than being raised together and being treated similarly by their parents. Similarly, they did not themselves feel that similar genetics hindered their sense of individuality, but they were keenly aware that other people saw them each as one part of a pair. The researchers concluded that cloned children would likely feel their own individuality as keenly as any other individual, but that they may suffer from the preconceptions of others, who might not recognize their individuality. Parents would have to be aware of how their own conceptions of individuality—and the conceptions of the other people—might affect their cloned children.

How Research Could Make Individuality Clearer for Us All

Human reproductive cloning is, however, likely a ways off, and every day, we learn more and more about all of the elements that go into making us the individual people we are. Glenn cited the value of epigenetics and microbiome research as key to our growing understandings of individuality, but she was especially excited about President Obama's BRAIN Initiative. "Really hope that it helps us confirm the worth of an individual," she says, "and I hope that it lets us recognize not only our differences, but our similarities—genetic or not."

Perhaps, by the time we get around to reproductive cloning, we'll think of the biological relationship between a person and their clone as being not so different from the relationship between any biological parent and child.