This paper argues that the television series Orphan Black (2013-2017) explores the philosophical implications of cloning and the posthuman questions these issues inevitably raise about the boundaries of the human. More importantly—it uses the experiences of its clones to draw attention to the existing legal context that is rapidly transforming the relationship of humans to their embodiment. The ethical questions raised by cloning and discourses of posthumanism, then, are no longer merely the stuff of sf extrapolation, but represent more-than-metaphorically biopolitical realities: commodification of body tissues; the sale of embodied services such as surrogate pregnancies; and IP in living organisms, including aspects of human DNA. The existence of cloning as a viable technology, and the current legislative and economic context in which commodified human body tissues circulate, makes the ethical issues raised by Orphan Black an important intervention into contemporary techno-science even though human clones do you (yet) exist.
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This paper was researched, written, and accepted for publication when only two seasons of the series had aired. Its arguments thus address only events that were narrated during seasons one and two.
For an extended discussion of the legal and ethical context of the Henrietta Lacks case, see Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010).
Although the family continues to receive no financial compensation, very recently the NIH has agreed to allow them a role in the ongoing use of their mother’s tissue, which was harvested without consent. Those wanting to use the cell line now must apply for and receive permission from the family before proceeding. See Caplan.
Whether this encounter is best understood as a seduction or a rape is also relevant to the series and its storyline about Helena’s pregnancy, which I’ll discuss in more detail below. For now the key point is that this mythic name evokes patriarchal control of women’s sexuality, something the series explores in other ways as well, and a key issue in the ethics of IVF.
It is relevant here that Mary Beth Whitehead, the surrogate mother in the Baby M case, also donated the egg used to create the embryos. In Johnson V. Calvert, Anna Johnson had no biological relationship to the child. See Hartouni.
This article was written, submitted, and accepted at the time that only two seasons of the show had aired. Its arguments thus consider only the first two seasons.
I am grateful for this insight to Miranda Butler who analysed extensive connections between the episodes and the chapters in a seminar paper. Season two episode titles are taken from works by Francis Bacon, famous for his work on the empirical method in science and for his ideal of science as a way for humans to dominate nature.
A similar example of such attention to minor detail is the fact that the cloning project originated in the UK although the series is set in Canada and none of the clones are UK residents. The UK is a leader in stem cell research, in large part because of its Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA, founded in 1990), which has ensured “a stable ethical and social, as well as legal, climate for investment, and the combination of high public trust and robust regulatory guidelines” (Franklin 63) which have been competitive advantages for the UK in this globalised industry. Even a seemingly unimportant comment—such as Cal telling Sarah Reykjavik is the answer, a place where they can hide from Dyad (S2E7)—might be a subtle reference to the fact that Iceland is at the center of one of the biggest controversies in genomics and personalised medicine. Its government, via the Health Sector Database Act, sold the genomic and other medical information about all Icelanders, living and dead, to the biotech firm deCODE. In return, citizens are to get free access to any medical therapies developed by the company (see Nowotny and Testa 36–38). The company is also at the center of controversies regarding its venture capital funding and exploitation of “grey areas” in the new SEC regulations brought in by the neoliberal Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (see Fortun) and declared bankruptcy in 2009.
Season three will not air until 2015 and so, at the time of writing, it is impossible to say how this narrative will develop.
To be fair, Rachel, whom Ethan raised for the first few years as his daughter, is a person to him, although when he meets the actual Dyad-raised Rachel he finds her inhuman. In the second season finale he chooses to commit suicide rather than give Dyad the cipher to decode his research because he wants the cloning project to end. The scene of his suicide is played out against a huge screen on which Rachel often watches family videos of herself and her parents, and such scenes form the backdrop to the action. Just before he dies, Ethan implores Rachel to remember, not just the events “but the feeling … how much we loved you.” She replies that the reason she watches the tapes so often is because she remembers nothing—although her extreme grief at his death, crying, “don’t leave me again,” suggests that feeling remains beneath her professional façade.
Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to engage in the critique of the speculative rhetoric of the biotech industry, and its relationship to the speculative economy that fuels this research, this is another site of ethical concern. See Sunder Rajan, Biocapital, and Mike Fortun, Promising Genetics, for important analyses of these trends.
For an example of similar rhetoric used in Monsanto advertising, see http://www.monsanto.com/stlouis/pages/ads.aspx. For a summary of a number of the critiques of the corporation see the Marie-Monique Robin’s documentary (and follow-up book of the same title) The World According to Monsanto (film 2008; book 2010).
Kline also notes that concerns about fertility emerged concomitant with increased educational and career opportunities for women, including a number of single women living outside their families’ supervision in cities as they worked in factories. This is yet another way that Orphan Black links the corporate attempts to control the clones with a longer history of patriarchal control of women’s bodies, especially their reproduction.
In the finale to season two he gives Kira his copy, filled with annotations and notes. It is hinted that this is the cipher that will decode his research for the clones—but not Dyad—in season three.
The passage reads, “Had Moreau had any intelligible object, I could have sympathised at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even, had his motive been hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless! His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on, and the things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer; at last to die painfully” (74).
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Vint, S. (2017). Commodified Life: Post-Humanism, Cloning and Gender in Orphan Black . In: Baron, C., Halvorsen, P., Cornea, C. (eds) Science Fiction, Ethics and the Human Condition. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-56577-4_7
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