Michael Jackson, cloning, and assisted reproduction: The trivial and the troubling

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky July 13, 2009
Biopolitical Times

When Michael Jackson's interest in cloning himself emerged last week, Biopolitical Times decided to refrain from comment. But developments since then, both silly and serious, have changed our mind.

The King of Pop's fascination with cloning was first reported by the Mirror, a UK tabloid, and then picked up by The Telegraph and a number of tabloids and entertainment outlets. Jackson's driver told the Mirror that his employer was obsessed with immortality and enthralled with a cloning cult called the Raelians.

"Michael said he wanted a mini-version of himself cloned to carry on his legacy. He was hoping that Michael Jackson could live for ever," the driver said. In the back seat of his limo after a Las Vegas cloning conference in 2002, he continued, Jackson told psychic spoon bender Uri Geller, "I really want to do it Uri, and I don't care how much it costs."

The Mirror also reported that "it's believed Jacko made contact with the Raelians after the conference in Las Vegas and spoke with [the Raelian bishop] Dr Brigette Boisselier about the idea of a Jacko clone."

The Raelians are a cult that believes human beings were created in the laboratories of super-intelligent extraterrestrial cloners. Founded by a former race car test driver who now sports white robes and a top-knot hairdo, the Raelians launched a human cloning company called Clonaid in 1997. In 2000 they announced that an anonymous US couple had given them $1 million to clone their dead daughter from preserved cells. Two years later, they received worldwide media attention when they claimed that a cloned baby named Eve had been born, but produced no evidence and faded from the headlines.

The story about Jackson's cloning fascination has thus far received little traction notwithstanding the 24/7 coverage of his life, death, and memorial (and the on-cue flood of Michael Jackson sightings). Perhaps additional weirdness is seen as superfluous. Or maybe it's due to the fact that the Mirror admits it's been unable to get any comment from Clonaid or the Raelians.

In fact, in an uncharacteristically modest press statement, the Raelians note that Jackson "was one of the first individuals to be named Raelian Honorary Guide for his actions promoting world peace" but acknowledge that Raelians "here on Earth" have not cloned him. However, the Raelians' founder says that Jackson "has probably been cloned" by the extraterrestrials already, and "will return to Earth with the Elohim when humanity has finally decided to welcome them back."

Author and Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams takes the question of Michael Jackson and reprogenetics in a different but related direction. Though Jackson obviously wasn't able to do much about cloning himself, he actually did design his children. In her column in The Nation, Williams raises a set of important and insightful comments about Jackson's children and the eugenic ends that the assisted reproduction industry is enabling:

[I]n the longer term, the question of Michael Jackson's children is challenging in other ways. Like his demands for plastic surgery or painkillers, their conception was accomplished as a made-to-order, cash-on-the-barrelhead commercial transaction. According to TMZ.com and other entertainment news sites, Jackson is not biologically related to any of his three children. Reportedly, the women who gestated them carried anonymously donated eggs fertilized by sperm from secret donors. Apparently the children were all crafted to be "white" enough to match Jackson's artfully devised if pathetically alienated image of himself. Deborah Rowe, Jackson's ex-wife and the surrogate who carried his oldest two children to term, describes being inseminated "like a horse"; she then received around $9 million to give up any claim to them. On the birth certificate of Jackson's youngest child, the space for "mother" is left blank.
It's hard to imagine that Jackson would have been found fit if he had attempted to adopt children. It is interesting to contemplate the eugenic ends to which in vitro fertilization and surrogate birth are being put these days, often as a kind of end run around the formal inspection of the adoption process. How much more common will the purchase of "the perfect child" become when bioengineering for specific physical traits becomes easier and less costly? It's not a new problem: "colorism" (preference for lighter skin) is an old problem within the African-American community. Choosing trophy spouses is a cruder version of the same game. Nevertheless, it is troubling that the law of sales is about the only context for debating this rapidly developing area. Shouldn't we think harder about the degree to which a free market for eugenics is enabled by easy-payment contract clauses conferring parenthood through the immaculate conception of biotechnology?
Jackson's fame and fortune ensured that he had few barriers to the pursuit of whatever whimsical fancy seized him. He became a more brilliant and frightening version of the Mad Hatter than even Tim Burton could conjure. And with that power, Jackson arranged for the bringing-to-life of three innocent souls whose racial embodiment pantomimed all he could never be. There's something horrifying that in the wake of his demise, his ignorant brutish father will be delivered three fair-skinned grandchildren, the perfectly rendered apotheosis of Michael's final crossing-over.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: