The Opportunity to Be a Lincoln

Published June 21, 2001

The Catholic Difference

Joseph Ellis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning study, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, reminds us that, when considering the historic contributions of such giants as George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison, Americans should never forget Alexander Hamilton. We like to think that we live in a republic formed in the image of Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and Madison, father of the Constitution—a republic of free citizens, engaged in rigorous, civil conversation about the great questions of our time. In truth, we live our daily lives in a Hamiltonian democracy—a commercial republic in which the mundane tasks of making, marketing, buying, and selling occupy far more of our hours and our imaginations than debates about political first principles.

Every once in a while, however, this Hamiltonian republic needs a different kind of moment: what we might call a Lincolnian moment, a moment of eloquent public clarification about the meaning of a great issue whose resolution will determine the future of the republic in a fundamental way. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the greatest political speech in American history, was just such a moment of clarification.

We need that kind of clarifying moment now. President George W. Bush is singularly positioned to provide it.

Over the next four years, one of two things will happen: either the United States will establish legal boundaries to guide the evolution of new biotechnologies so that they truly serve human healing, or the United States will cross the threshold of a brave new world of manufactured human beings. If a legal framework for managing the new genetic knowledge, which is growing at an astonishing pace, is not created in the next few years, it will likely be too late to consider legal remedies in the future. The pace of change will have outstripped the law’s capacity to guide the course of future change.

That is why President Bush should give a Lincolnian address to the nation this Fall, explaining that what is at stake in the development of biotechnology in nothing less than the question of whether humanity’s future will be genuinely human. Will we deploy our new knowledge of the human genome in ways that enlarge medicine’s capacity to heal? Or will we succumb to the temptation to remanufacture the human condition by manufacturing human beings, according to precise specifications?

The kind of speech I am imagining would bring the question down to specifics by putting the administration on record in support of a legal ban, with enforceable and severe penalties, on all forms of human cloning. There are a host of complex issues to be sorted out at the intersection of the new genetics and the law. But nothing clarifies the human and moral stakes in the biotech revolution more than the cloning question.

For, as Leon Kass of the University of Chicago has put it, once life is special-ordered rather than conceived, “human life” will never be the same again. Cloning, Dr. Kass writes, brings conception and gestation “into the bright light of the laboratory, beneath which the child-to-be can be fertilized, nourished, pruned, weeded, watched, inspected, prodded, pinched, cajoled, injected, tested, rated, graded, approved, stamped, wrapped, sealed, and delivered”—all in order to satisfy someone else’s “need,” or someone else’s sense of what is social desirable. There is a clear, morally-defensible, and politically-doable bright line to be drawn here: begetting the human future, not manufacturing it.

A Lincolnian address to the nation on the gravity of the issues engaged by the biotech revolution would help lift the future debate out of the morass of pragmatism and utilitarianism—“If it can be done, it should be done.”—into which these arguments have fallen in Great Britain. A cloning ban would give teeth to the national commitment to guide, rather than be driven by, the exploitation of the new genetics. Such a ban would also help reverse the myth of inevitability —“It’s going to happen anyway, so why bother?”—that now surrounds a lot of the chatter about the prospects of human cloning.

Presidents don’t get the chance to step into Lincoln’s shoes very often. President Bush should seize the opportunity. Quickly.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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