Gregory Pence is a leading expert on bioethics, and back in 2000 he was the only bioethicist to testify before Congress against a bill that would have outlawed human cloning. Pence rolls his eyes at most science fiction, which tends to depict clones that are unrealistically similar to each other, but one show that’s really grabbed his interest is Orphan Black.

Orphan Black is pretty good about the science, like 98 percent of the time, and it’s really good about the bioethics issues,” Pence says in Episode 197 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

He explores those issues in his new book What We Talk About When We Talk About Clone Club: Bioethics and Philosophy in Orphan Black. He likes that the show depicts Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) and her fellow clones as ordinary people with distinct personalities, backgrounds, and sexual identities. It’s a pleasant change from movies like The Island or Never Let Me Go, in which clones are killed and harvested for their organs.

“I think that’s completely absurd,” he says. “The way you’re originated doesn’t affect your personhood under our laws and ethics, so it’s just going to be murder to do that.”

A career in bioethics has taught him that every medical advance from egg donors to surrogate mothers to in vitro fertilization has been met with premature cries of horror. He’s confident that human cloning will eventually be accepted as just another option for parents.

“Almost all these things are tempests in a teapot,” he says. “They’re really not a big deal.”

He also notes that while the US government has stymied progress in areas such as stem cell research, Asian nations are moving full speed ahead. That promises a future in which Americans must travel abroad in order to obtain life-saving medical treatments.

“If your grandad is starting to shed his neurons with early onset Alzheimer’s, and there’s a chance you can reverse it, or at least stabilize it, you’re going to go get it,” he says.

Listen to our complete interview with Gregory Pence in Episode 197 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Gregory Pence on science fiction:

“I’ve looked at a lot of movies about cloning, and I’ve read a lot of science fiction about cloning, and too often it would fall back on the same old stuff. The number one mistake is to think that if you clone a genotype, you get some kind of memories back, like in Arnold Schwartzenegger’s movie The 6th Day. In Alien: Resurrection, the new Ripley has some of the memories of the old Ripley. So that’s really wrong and misleading and inaccurate. And this isn’t just cloning, but hardly ever is there a scientist who’s well-intentioned. Maybe in The Day After Tomorrow, maybe Raiders of the Lost Ark. I ask my students sometimes to come up with a movie where a scientist is the good guy, and they’re stumped. And they’re science students.”

Gregory Pence on harvesting organs:

“I think an interesting scenario would be that you created a fetus and put it in some kind of artificial womb that basically rendered it brain dead, so it never became conscious. So you have this body that’s maintained, but a person never develops in it. It’s kind of like when you’re moving and you put all your stuff into mini-storage, and then pay to keep it around. … Then you’re not ever killing a person. … It’s theoretically possible. I know this because in bioethics there was a woman named Rita Greene, who was a nurse, and she went into a persistent vegetative state in about 1951. … And they’ve kept her body alive in a nursing home since then. So you can keep a body alive for a very, very long time with the right support.”

Gregory Pence on cloning celebrities:

“Genes have a range of expression that’s based partly on epigenetics and what happens in the environment, and how those things come together is pretty arbitrary. So it’s conceivable that you could clone five versions of Taylor Swift, and none of them sang quite like her, but more importantly, none of them had her drive and ambition, and skills in terms of business and self-marketing and clothes. Some of the things we associate with Taylor Swift are probably not just due to the base genetic package, but a whole bunch of other things. That’s the nature-nurture question. Again, we’re going to have to find out. I mean, you would have a good shot at it, but you probably wouldn’t get a superstar.”

Gregory Pence on alarmism:

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I will. The easy road in bioethics is to be an alarmist, and to say, ‘The technology is changing faster than our wisdom,’ and just to say ‘no’ all the time. It’s much harder to say ‘yes.’ Looking back at 1978, almost everybody in bioethics should have said ‘yes’ to assisted reproduction. It’s pro-life, parents want the kids. But it’s hard to be out there, because if something goes wrong, then you feel responsible. And science fiction is a double-edged sword, because a lot of science fiction—to be dramatic—has to scare us, so it’s done its share of scaring people about science and choice, as well as the good science fiction, which has laid out a more optimistic future.”


Orphan Black Doesn’t Think Human Cloning Is Such a Big Deal