The specter of Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and statesman who died in 1626, haunts the U.S. Senate’s debate over cloning in 2002. Bacon, founding father of the scientific method in England, taught the innocence of knowledge and insisted on the radical autonomy of science. When a congressman last year argued that “we should not allow theology, philosophy, or politics to interfere with the decisions we make on [cloning],” he was speaking Bacon’s language – particularly in describing any regulation of science as “interference.”
Non-interference with science is one of the crucial subtexts of today’s cloning debate. But the claim that science should have a unique immunity from public scrutiny and legal regulation doesn’t have much going for it, philosophically or empirically. At the level of theory, science, as science, cannot determine how its findings are used. As Francis Fukuyama puts it, “science can discover vaccines and cures for disease, but it can also create infectious agents; it can uncover the physics of semiconductors but also the physics of the hydrogen bomb.” Whether science contributes to healing rather than to bio-terrorism, and builds cell-phones rather than nuclear weapons, is (contrary to our congressman) a matter of “theology, philosophy, and politics” – a matter of public policy.
The claim for science’s immunity from political scrutiny and legal regulation also fails empirically. From the beginning, nuclear energy was understood to be a force of immense power to be kept under rigorous political scrutiny and control. Imagine Enrico Fermi emerging from the University of Chicago football stadium in 1942, announcing the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, and then demanding free rein to develop this process as he and his colleagues saw fit; he’d have been quickly locked up. Medical research with human subjects is under strict legal control. These constraints embody the recognition that, by its very nature, science (in which data is data, wherever it comes from) cannot be self-regulating.
If we recognize the need to set boundaries around the development of nuclear technology and medical research, why should bio-tech research be exempt?
There is another subtext to the cloning debate, and that is the question of what cloning would do to the cloners — to all of us.
Like the stem-cell research debate, the cloning debate is usually framed in terms of the moral status of the embryo: Is a tiny embryo, produced by in vitro fertilization or cloning, a human person entitled to the full protection of the law? To my mind, this isn’t a complicated question: nothing that is human was ever anything other than human; nothing that is not human can ever become human; and nothing that will become human is ever, at some point, other-than-human. These are facts of logic and genetics, and they ought to be pressed hard in seeking a total ban on cloning.
I wonder, though, if we ought not widen the frame of the debate. Perhaps we should not only debate what happens to embryos used for research, but what happens to us.
When human begetting is replaced by the manufacture of human beings, what happens to us, the manufacturers? When, slightly farther down the road, human beings are designed as products rather than received as gifts, what happens to us, the designers? When human life is treated like another commodity rather than as a profound mystery, what is happening to us? The moral status of the embryo is a crucial issue in the cloning and stem-cell research debates. But so is the moral condition of…all of us.
Which is another reason why our congressman had it backwards when he proposed ejecting “theology, philosophy, and politics” from these debates. The congressman wanted public policy to be guided by the “best available science,” period. But the best available science cannot, as science, tell us what cloning human beings and using indisputably human creatures as research materials will do to us. We need other guides here. The available guides are theology, philosophy, and politics.
The members of the United States Senate cannot be allowed to plead the autonomy of science in the current cloning debate. We send these men and women to Washington to deliberate the public good. We should demand that they do precisely that.
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.