Cloning, Stem Cells, and Beyond

Published August 13, 2001

The Weekly Standard

Last week’s vote in the House to ban human cloning is something to celebrate. It may even be something momentous. The House passed, by 265 to 162, a bill sponsored by representative Dave Weldon of Florida that would ban the creation of all human clones. It rejected an alternative sponsored by Pennsylvania representative James Greenwood, and backed by the biotech lobby, that would have allowed the creation of cloned human embryos to be used for medical research and then destroyed.

The Greenwood forces had corporate money and much of enlightened opinion behind them. They over-promised, misled, and demagogued, claiming, for example, that cloned-embryo research could one day “end human suffering,” that cloned embryos “are not really embryos at all,” and that a vote against such research is a “sentence of death for millions of Americans.”

But the majority of the House—a larger majority than expected—refused to listen. They chose instead to halt (or try to halt) what Charles Krauthammer has described as “the most ghoulish and dangerous enterprise in modern scientific history: the creation of nascent cloned human life for the sole purpose of its exploitation and destruction.” They defied the wishes of the medical research establishment, the biotech industry, and the health-at-any-cost humanitarians. They drew a bright moral line, which even the most well-meaning scientists would not be permitted to cross.

Whether this line will hold in the long run—and even whether the Senate will pass a similar cloning ban—is an open question. For while last week’s House vote struck a blow against a Brave New World, it represents only the first public engagement in what will surely be a prolonged struggle, not just over cloning and stem cells, but over whether and how to regulate, control, and shape the genetic revolution that is upon us.

One lesson of last week’s debate is that everyone claims to be horrified by the prospect of live human clones. Even the Greenwood bill ostensibly banned reproductive cloning. This suggests a broad willingness to accept some moral limitations, enforced in law, on scientific “progress.” It suggests we still believe there are great and obvious evils that no amount of utilitarian or libertarian reasoning can justify, and which we must regulate, forbid, and criminalize in the public interest.

But we have also learned something else: Over one-third of the House of Representatives believes that corporations and researchers—like Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts, which has already begun a research cloning project—should be left alone in the hope that cloned-embryo farms will one day prove a useful source of embryonic stem cells. And we know that majorities in both the House and Senate support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, at least when the embryos are “leftovers” from in vitro fertilization clinics. Nor have we seen any urgent effort to ban the creation of embryos by private organizations—like the Jones Institute in Norfolk, Virginia, discussed in these pages two weeks ago—that pay women to help produce embryos for research and destruction.

And despite all the publicity surrounding the president’s pending decision on embryonic stem cells, it is worth noting that his decision will be a limited one, touching only on the question of federal funding of research on stem cell lines derived from spare in vitro embryos. Even if the president maintains the current ban on funding, Congress will challenge him with a bill of its own—and may well try to broaden the permissible uses of federal funds. And whatever the president and Congress decide about federal funding, this research will presumably proceed apace in the private sector—and not just on leftover in vitro embryos but on embryos created solely for research and destruction.

All of this means that last week’s cloning debate in the House and President Bush’s imminent stem cell decision are just the tip of the iceberg. The dilemmas over cloning and stem cells will inevitably force a much larger debate about where the modern technological project is heading: Is it moral to harvest potential lives to help existing ones? How about improving potential life through genetic engineering? Isn’t the question of how stem cells may be used as morally troubling as the question of how they have been obtained? How reasonable is it, anyway, to try to end all disease and suffering? Do we have the wisdom and the will to preserve a distinction between medical therapy and eugenic enhancement? A line between a better human world and a new inhuman one?

In this opening skirmish—call it “the cloning/stem cell moment”—four basic positions have emerged. Each represents a different set of moral, political, and practical judgments about what is fundamentally desirable and what is not, and about whether even seemingly desirable advances may have very undesirable consequences. We might call the four camps the hubristic scientists, the squishy liberals, the anguished moderates, and the anti-Brave New Worlders.

Hubristic Scientists

The hubristic scientists favor medical progress at all costs, and are willing to use any means necessary to further unfettered research, which they equate with the good of mankind. To defend this position they deploy a number of strategies, not all of them true or consistent: the claim that mere legislators and uninformed citizens lack the expertise to make decisions about science; the claim that any “metaphysical” arguments for restricting science are unconstitutional transgressions against the separation of church and state; the assertion that because science is limited (“a method, not a faith,” as biotech lobbyist Carl Feldbaum put it), religious people should not worry about its excesses; that because human beings are “more than our genetic make-ups,” we should allow the geneticists to do what they deem necessary with the human genome; that nearly all religious people really want the fruits of the biological enterprise, even if their values initially give them pause; that the spirit of religion and the spirit of science are really the same; and, finally, the insistence that things are not what they seem—or more precisely in this particular debate, that embryos are not embryos and that the Weldon ban on human cloning is really an effort to undermine in vitro fertilization, the right to abortion, and indeed decades and centuries of medical progress.

Greenwood and his allies used all these strategies on the House floor:

“This is Congress again playing scientist,” said Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York.

“Now, here we are making a decision like we were the house of cardinals on a religious issue when, in fact, scientists are struggling to find out how human beings actually work,” said Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington.

“I am not prepared as a politician to stand on the floor of the House and say, I have a philosophical belief, probably stemmed in my religion, that makes me say, you cannot go there, science, because it violates my religious belief,” said James Greenwood, Republican of Pennsylvania.

And Greenwood again, this time claiming to have God on his side: “It is a very legitimate and important and historic debate about how it is that we are able to use the DNA that God put into our own bodies, use the brain that God gave us to think creatively, and to employ this research to save the lives of men, women, and children in this country and throughout the world and to rescue them from terribly debilitating and life-shortening diseases.”

Conspicuous on the House floor was contempt for so-called theocrats who would stop the compassionate march of medical progress—together with brazen confidence that God wants science to proceed unregulated. It was altogether an odd mixture of the hubris of the medical researcher seeking to lead his fellow men beyond nature, and the sentimentality of the post-Communist romantic, who sees in genetic science man’s new hope for building a kind, just, and liberated heaven on earth. If the House debate is any indication, the path from such hubris and sentimentality to what C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man” is quick and direct.

Squishy Liberals

The second position is that of the squishy liberals, best exemplified perhaps by the Washington Post. In October 1994, a National Institutes of Health panel of experts recommended that the government fund research that involved creating and destroying human embryos for research purposes alone. The Post disagreed, in a sharp editorial that called for “drawing the line.” “The creation of human embryos specifically for research that will destroy them is unconscionable,” the paper wrote. “The government has no business funding it. . . . It is not necessary to be against abortion rights, or to believe human life literally begins at conception, to be deeply alarmed by the notion of scientists’ purposely causing conceptions in a context entirely divorced from even the potential of reproduction.”

Fast forward to last week. On the day of the cloning debate, a Post editorial entitled “Cloning Overkill” sang a very different tune. All the caution and outrage and commitment to “society’s ability to make distinctions” were gone. Now swept up in enthusiasm for stem cell research, the Post argued:

“The bill to ban all human cloning, proposed by Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.), goes well beyond any consensus society has yet reached. . . . At issue is not the withholding of federal funding from research some find morally troubling; rather, the Weldon bill would criminalize the field of cloning entirely. . . . A complete cloning ban could block many possible clinical applications of stem cell research.” And the only way those “applications” will be discovered is by creating cloned human embryos for research and destruction—the very thing the paper seven years earlier had deemed “unconscionable.”

This is the way of the squishy liberals: They temporarily affirm some moral limits to scientific progress, only to cave when those limits are actually tested by a new wave of medical promises. They are putty in the hands of the less scrupulous avatars of “progress,” who use the rhetoric of limits as a tactic against those who would resist them.

Thus, in the media crusade to win federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, advocates have made their case largely on the grounds that embryos left over from in vitro fertilization will be destroyed anyway. But the House vote shows that many pro-research congressmen are willing to go much further: 178 members (153 of them Democrats) voted to authorize the creation and destruction of cloned embryos.

Here the bait-and-switch dishonesty is remarkable. On July 27, over 200 members of the House wrote President Bush “to express our strong support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.” The letter continues:

“The reports the week of July 9 that a Virginia laboratory has created human embryos to obtain stem cells for research purposes and a Massachusetts firm aims to create embryos using cloning techniques to derive stem cells for therapeutic purposes, make plain that this research, replete with moral, ethical, and scientific issues, is occurring in the private sector even as the federal government debates the issues. The only way to ensure that embryonic stem cell research is conducted with strict ethical and legal guidelines is to provide federal funding and oversight.”

Signing the letter were Jim Greenwood, Peter Deutsch, and 165 others who voted for the Greenwood bill—the very purpose of which was to authorize the cloning of embryos that this letter pretends to find so alarming.

A vote for the Greenwood bill was a vote for the creation of embryos solely for research and destruction, nothing else. It was a vote for the very thing the Washington Post—and many defenders of fetal tissue research in the early 1990s—once explicitly rejected: creation for destruction. And so it is that the alliance of the hubristic scientists and the squishy liberals ensures that some moral limits are no limits at all—just bumps in the road.

Anguished Moderates

Which raises the question: Can real lines be drawn? Can limits be set and coherent and lasting distinctions made? For example, Republican senator Bill Frist of Tennessee has proposed that all human cloning and the creation of embryos solely for research and destruction be banned; that the total number of embryos used for research be limited, but that embryonic stem cell research from spare embryos be approved and federally funded; and that there be increased funding for adult stem cell research. This is the sort of compromise—one that claims to be intellectually coherent, morally grounded, and practically achievable—that the anguished moderates seek.

There are many types of anguished moderates. There are morally serious pro-choicers, like representative David Wu of Oregon, who defend abortion but take concerns about the use of embryos seriously, and who realize that even the benefits of research do not justify risking a leap into a Brave New World of human cloning. There are the “soft” pro-lifers, like senator Orrin Hatch and former senator Connie Mack, who believe research on leftover frozen embryos and opposition to abortion are mutually consistent positions, since, as Hatch put it, “Life begins in the mother’s womb, not in a refrigerator.” Finally, there are those who believe that human cloning and research on embryonic stem cells are both wrong, but that cloning is by far the greater evil. This group is willing, if necessary, to concede some forms of embryonic stem cell research if it can draw a bright line against human cloning. It adopts, in other words, a strategy of containment, a melancholy realism about where we are and what is possible.

There will be strong pressure on both the Democratic Senate, which must decide what to do about human cloning, and President Bush, who must decide whether or not to authorize public funding for embryonic stem cell research, to come down somewhere in this anguished center.

President Bush, if one takes his earliest statements seriously, believes that research on human embryos is wrong. He assured his pro-life supporters during the campaign and in the first months of his presidency that he would not allow federal funding for research “that involves destroying living human embryos.” But now he must decide whether to hold to this position, or to give in to the massive pressure to authorize at least some federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. And he must also decide how strongly to push for a ban on create-and-kill embryonic research in the private sector.

Senate majority leader Tom Daschle has a different dilemma: The Democrats risk becoming the party of human cloning. After all, Democrats in the House voted 153 to 53 in favor of embryonic cloning; Republicans voted 194 to 25 against it. Daschle’s comments after the House vote last week suggested that he is aware of this risk, and that he stands somewhere in the anguished center, if on its left-leaning, pro-research, pro-choice edge. In his statements, he went out of his way to separate the cloning debate from the stem cell debate—decrying cloning and endorsing stem cells. But what he and his party will do in the Senate is uncertain. His precise wording—”My preference is to ban cloning, period, but, you know, I also recognize that these are very, very complicated issues”—leaves some wiggle room. Will he challenge the research establishment and the plurality (perhaps even the majority) within his own party that approves of embryonic cloning? Or is health-at-any-cost the new defining principle of liberalism? Is this where the “pursuit of happiness” has taken us?

Anti-Brave New Worlders

Those in the last group, which includes the authors, share a foreboding about where the new science is taking us. Its members made up the core of support for the Weldon ban on human cloning, and comprise moral conservatives (mostly religious) and some on the morally serious environmental and anti-corporate left. They imagine with horror a future that looks like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, C.S. Lewis’s abolition of man, or Pope John Paul II’s culture of death. And they want to stop it.

In his brilliant critique of human cloning in the New Republic in May 2001, Leon Kass began with the following admonition:

The urgency of the great political struggles of the twentieth century, successfully waged against totalitarianisms first right and then left, seems to have blinded many people to a deeper and ultimately darker truth about the present age: all contemporary societies are traveling briskly in the same utopian direction. All are wedded to the modern technological project; all march eagerly to the drums of progress and fly proudly the banner of modern science; all sing loudly the Baconian anthem, “Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate.”

What we are debating now is whether we have any choice in how this march turns out, whether we can stop or turn back, and whether we even want to. It is in the nature of modern democracies, certainly American democracy, that issues move in and out of sight. At present, we are in the midst of a debate on embryonic research, human cloning, and stem cells. But the choices and advances that have placed these dilemmas before us did not happen overnight. They happened step by step, one innovation after the next. The dilemmas themselves were always there, if perhaps not always quite as pressing as they now seem.

Indeed, Kass’s alarm in 2001 sounds similar to his warnings in the early 1970s, when he argued that the unnatural manufacture of human life through test-tube babies would lead us down a path on which it would be difficult to stop. But since then, after the initial shock and horror of each new technological development, there came a period of quiet momentum in its favor, then tacit acceptance, then normalcy.

Now, the issue is publicly joined. Are there moral markers that can hold? Can we preserve the benefits of medical progress without succumbing to a post-human future? Which of our past decisions—or non-decisions—must we revisit? And how solid are the compromises of the anguished moderates? There is, in the best of these compromises, perhaps some of the prudence of those, in the 1850s, who thought it was enough simply to halt the spread of slavery. But as with slavery, there are inconsistencies and temptations that make the anguished moderate position unsustainable. Even if some version of Senator Frist’s hair-splitting prevails, it might well turn out to be a mere Missouri Compromise, with more fundamental battles just around the corner.

For example: Any compromise built on the distinction between leftover embryos and embryos created for destruction is problematic. Couples who create scores of extra embryos at fertility clinics, and who consent for their spare embryos to be used in research, know in advance that these embryos will be used and destroyed. Certainly, this is not the couple’s main purpose in creating them—any more than destruction is the main purpose of researchers who create embryos in the noble pursuit of curing disease. In both cases, embryos are created by people who know in advance that they will be destroyed.

And what about private sector research on embryonic stem cells? If such research is morally objectionable, shouldn’t it be banned, not merely deprived of federal funding? Moreover, if this work continues and succeeds, all users of modern medicine will benefit—and all will be implicated in the moral problem this “progress” raises.

Finally, even principled opponents of embryonic stem cell research and human cloning have not fully confronted the connection between the goal of relieving disease and suffering and the increasingly dehumanizing means of achieving it. Some defend doubling, tripling, quadrupling research on adult stem cells. Science itself, they say, dictates that we don’t “need” embryonic stem cells, only adult ones—a point many leading scientists vehemently disagree with. And this is to say nothing of the morally problematic eugenic uses to which stem cell research—both adult and embryonic—will be put.

After all, isn’t it our alleged “need” for such research that has eroded our ability to say no in the first place? Isn’t it an inflamed desire for comfort, health, and longevity that impels us forward, that makes us justify what initially seems unjustifiable, that blinds us to the truth about human mortality and finitude, and about the dark side of our disease-ending civilization? To cure, after all, is to eliminate, to erase, to stamp out. What begins as a quest to halt disease may end as a “compassionate” effort to stamp out the diseased themselves. And soon enough, it is not just diseases and the diseased that are a problem to be done away with, but the inconvenient and undesirable—the unintelligent, or the old, or the unfit, or those of the wrong sex.

For now, the vote in the House to say no to human cloning, to reject the modern technological project’s latest Faustian bargain, is heartening. Maybe this will lead to a more fundamental democratic engagement with the threat of science and technology to human decency and human dignity. But not necessarily. Perhaps instead it will take the first live human clone to shock us fully awake. Or perhaps the emergence of the first great stem cell cure—or eugenic enhancement—will erode our resistance, and our conscience, even further, luring us all unawares toward a post-human future. But last week’s vote demonstrates that such a nightmare is not inevitable.

Source Notes
Copyright: 2001 The Weekly Standard

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