May 20, 2002
Cloning -- Who has the moral high ground?
Did you know you could go to jail trying to save lives? A bill to criminalize cloning research has passed the House and is now being deliberated in the Senate. Bush supports the Brownback/Landrieu bill in the Senate that sets a 10-year jail term for researchers experimenting in the field of therapeutic cloning. If this bill passes, I'm convinced of two things: 1) it will not represent the wishes of the vast majority of Americans and 2) it will be their fault: because Americans haven't spoken up about this issue.
The problem is that, on the face of it, cloning is creepy. The idea that my wife could give birth to someone with my DNA is weird to say the least. But only thinking of the science-fiction while ignoring the science is intellectual laziness and a bassackwardness that will cost lives.
Forget about "cloning" for a moment and consider a technology called somatic cell nuclear transfer. We all learned during the national discussion on stem cells last summer that technology is being developed to custom create vitally needed cells (nerve, heart, muscle, pancreatic islet, etc.) to help cure a myriad of maladies such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, and many, many more. A stumbling block to this technology is that, as with organ transplants, the patient's body can reject foreign cells. Somatic cell nuclear transfer would avoid this potentially fatal problem with the technology to develop cells that match the patient's DNA.
So what's the problem? First, as with embryonic stem cells, somatic cell nuclear transfer involves the creation and destruction of a human embryo, so it has strong opposition from those who consider this immoral and oppose stem cell research and abortion. But abortion is legal and the stem cell discussion was only about federal funding -- not about criminalizing research -- so this can't account for the bills broader support. The second problem occurs should the embryo be implanted in a woman's uterus, instead of manipulated to create the needed cells. This could then result in a baby with the DNA of the donor's clone.
This so-called "reproductive cloning" made the news recently as several fairly wacky fertility groups claimed to be in the process of creating the first cloned human baby. Almost everyone is in favor of banning reproductive cloning and there are bills in Congress that would do just that. However, it is the broader bills that ban all somatic cell nuclear transfer research, even for therapeutic purposes, that have gained traction.
Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? The move to criminalize therapeutic cloning research is essentially an extra precaution to keep us one more step away from reproductive cloning. Is this justified? To answer that one must ask two questions: how much closer to reproductive cloning does therapeutic cloning get us? And how terrible is reproductive cloning?
As far as the first, by most accounts therapeutic cloning research could get us much closer to reproductive cloning. When we develop the ability to make a healthy cloned human embryo, we are indeed a small theoretical step away from making a cloned baby. Supporters of criminalizing research point out that it would be practically impossible to enforce a ban on reproductive cloning once the technology is here--once an embryo is implanted in a uterus not only do privacy laws help keep it secret but it would be inconceivable for law enforcement to stop the baby coming to term through a mandatory abortion.
But laws work. Physicians who violate a ban on reproductive cloning can certainly be punished and prevented from doing it again (and thereby dissuaded from trying it in the first place.) And consider that those working on therapeutic cloning tend to be people trying to save lives with new therapies, and not necessarily concerned with reproduction. But clearly, no law can be perfect.
And this includes the current law being proposed to outlaw research. Whether above ground or underground, from within this country or from without, can there be any doubt that cloning technology will be developed? Abuse of the ban on reproduction will happen whether we allow cloning technology to be used by reputable scientists to save lives or not. The ban on therapeutic research will perhaps stall or curtail baby-making, but it won't eliminate it, and at what cost?
We must be thoughtful about the considering the moral equation here: on the one side you have tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of lives that can be saved by responsible usage of cloning technology. On the other, you have increased (perhaps) likelihood that reproductive cloning will happen in America.
So we must answer the second question asked above: how terrible is reproductive cloning? Some may object to the question, but reasonable people have to ask it, just as we must ask, How bad is a traffic fatality? If it were infinitely bad, driving would be illegal, but of course we accept trade-offs--even grim ones. I oppose reproductive cloning, primarily because it constitutes an unacceptable kind of human experimentation since the technology is not perfected, but a human clone is not a monster. In fact, human clones are born every day--they are called twins--and no one seems to be greatly concerned about the sinister impact of twins on our society or the unconquerable moral dilemma faced by twins forced to confront their lack of individuality. We know that even identical twins are not really identical, but instead are unique individuals with the same DNA. In fact, non-twin clones would be LESS similar than identical twins since they would develop in different wombs, at different times, with different upbringings--all things we know to play major roles in the composition of an individual.
Sure it would be creepy if my wife gave birth to my twin -- though it wouldn't be another "me" but more like a much younger brother, or perhaps a son, with a remarkable resemblance -- so we won't do it. Others may, but should we sacrifice thousands of lives to stop (some of) them? Should we imprison scientists developing technology to save lives? Should we ban the importation of all live-saving therapies that were developed using cloning technologies? If you support the proposed ban on therapeutic cloning you must be prepared to answer yes to all of these questions and live (or die) with the consequences.
For more information and views on cloning, I recommend visiting Virginia Postrel's blog at vpostrel.com and specifically her great piece that ran in the Wall Street Journal. For those opposed to criminalizing therapeutic cloning research and want your voice to be heard, call your senator today and sign the Franklin Society petition and/or this "progressive" petition.