Published on December 5, 2001
Dr. Michael West, the lead scientist on the team that recently cloned the first human embryos, believes his mission in life is “to end suffering and death.” “For the sake of medicine,” he informs us, “we need to set our fears aside.” For the sake of health, in other words, we need to overcome our moral inhibitions against cloning and eugenics.
The human cloning announcement was not a shock. We have been “progressing” down this road for years, while averting our gaze from the destination. Now we have cloned human embryos. That means that women’s eggs were procured, their genetic material removed, the DNA from someone else inserted, and the resulting cloned embryos manufactured as genetic replicas of an existing person. In Dr. West’s experiments, the embryos died very quickly. But the hope is that someday these embryos will serve as a source of rejection-free stem cells that can help cure diseases.
For now, this is science fiction, or a rosy form of speculation. No one has ever been treated with “therapeutic cloning” or embryonic stem cells. There have been no human trials. But it is true that this research may work in the future (though the benefits would likely be decades away). In addition, beyond cloning, scientists have larger ambitions, including “tinkering” with DNA before it is placed in an egg, and adding designer genes that would make clones into “super clones,” stem cells into “super stem cells.”
Yet while Dr. West and his colleagues say that they have no interest in creating cloned humans — on the grounds that doing so is not yet safe — they do not seem too frightened by the prospect of laying the groundwork for those who would do just that. “We didn’t feel that the abuse of this technology, its potential abuses, should stop us from doing what we believe is the right thing in medicine,” Dr. West said.
The Senate, it seems, is also not very concerned. Majority Leader Tom Daschle wants to put off until spring a vote on the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, which the House passed by 265-162 in July. And on Monday, the Senate chose not to consider a six-month moratorium on all human cloning. As Sen. Harry Reid has said, a moratorium for “six months or two months or two days would impede science.” And that, he believes, we cannot do.
It is understandable that many senators want to avoid a decision on this controversial issue, and no surprise that those driven by a desire to advance science and to heal the sick at any cost resist a ban. But as the ethicist Paul Ramsey wrote, “The good things that men do can be complete only by the things they refuse to do.” And cloning is one of those things we should refuse to do.
The debate is usually divided into two issues — reproductive cloning (creating cloned human beings) and therapeutic cloning (creating cloned human embryos for research and destruction). For now, there is near-universal consensus that we should shun the first. The idea of mother-daughter twins or genetically-identical “daddy juniors” stirs horror in us. Our moral sense revolts at the prospect, because so many of our cherished principles would be violated: the principle that children should not be designed in advance; that newborns should be truly new, without the burden of a genetic identity already lived; that a society where cloning is easy (requiring a few cells from anywhere in the body) means anyone could be cloned without knowledge or consent; and that replacing lost loved ones with “copies” is an insult to the ones lost, since it denies the uniqueness and sacredness of their existence. For these reasons, Americans agree that human cloning should never happen — not merely because the procedure is not yet “safe,” but because it is wrong.
Many research advocates say that they, too, are against “reproductive cloning.” But to protect their research, they seek to restrict only the implantation of cloned embryos, not the creation of cloned embryos for research. This is untenable: Once we begin stockpiling cloned embryos for research, it will be virtually impossible to control how they are used. We would be creating a class of embryos that, by law, must be destroyed. And the only remedy for wrongfully implanting cloned embryos would be forced abortions, something neither pro-lifers nor reproductive rights advocates would tolerate, nor should.
But the cloning debate is not simply the latest act in the moral divide over abortion. It is the “opening skirmish” — as Leon Kass, the president’s bioethics czar, describes it — in deciding whether we wish to “put human nature itself on the operating table, ready for alteration, enhancement, and wholesale redesign.” Lured by the seductive promise of medical science to “end” suffering and disease, we risk not seeing the dark side of the eugenic project.
Three horrors come to mind: First, the designing of our descendents, whether through cloning or germ-line engineering, is a form of generational despotism. Second, in trying to make human beings live indefinitely, our scientists have begun mixing our genes with those of cows, pigs, and jellyfish. And in trying to stamp out disease by any means necessary, we risk beginning the “compassionate” project of killing off the diseased themselves, something that has already begun with the selective abortion by parents of “undesirable” embryos.
Proponents of the biogenetic revolution will surely say that such warnings are nothing more than superstitions. Naive to the destructive power of man’s inventions, they will say that freedom means leaving scientists to experiment as they see fit. They will say that those who wish to stop the unchecked advance of biotechnology are themselves “genetic fundamentalists,” who see human beings as nothing more than their genetic make-ups. Banning human cloning, one advocate says, “would set a very dangerous precedent of bringing the police powers of the federal government into the laboratories.”
But the fact is that society accepts the need to regulate behavior for moral reasons — from drug use to nuclear weapons research to dumping waste. And those who say that human identity is “more than a person’s genetic make-up” are typically the ones who seek to crack man’s genetic code, so that they might “improve” humans in the image they see fit. In promising biological utopia, they justify breaching fundamental moral boundaries.
C. S. Lewis saw this possibility long ago in “The Abolition of Man.” As he put it, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.” In order to stop the dehumanization of man, and the creation of a post-human world of designer babies, man-animal chimeras, and “compassionate killing” of the disabled, we may have to forego some research. We may have to say no to certain experiments before they begin. The ban on human cloning is an ideal opportunity to reassert democratic control over science, and to reconnect technological advance with human dignity and responsibility.
Copyright: 2001 The Wall Street Journal