In the past two months I have talked with many people who have a keen interest in whether the Senate will decide to ban therapeutic cloning. At a conference at a Philadelphia hospital, a large number of people, their bodies racked with tremors from Parkinson's disease, gathered to hear me speak about the ethics of stem cell research. A few weeks earlier I had spoken to another group, many of whom were breathing with the assistance of oxygen tanks because they have a genetic disease, Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, that destroys their lungs and livers. Earlier still I met with a group of parents whose children are paralyzed as a result of spinal cord injuries.
At each meeting I told the audience there was a good chance that the government would criminalize research that might find answers to their ailments if it required using cloned human embryos, on the grounds that research using such embryos is unethical. The audience members were incredulous. And well they should have been. A bizarre alliance of antiabortion religious zealots and technophobic neoconservatives along with a smattering of scientifically befuddled antibiotech progressives is pushing hard to insure that the Senate accords more moral concern to cloned embryos in dishes than it does to kids who can't walk and grandmothers who can't hold a fork or breathe.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that George W. Bush and the House of Representatives have already taken the position that any research requiring the destruction of an embryo, cloned or otherwise, is wrong. This view derives from the belief, held by many in the Republican camp, that personhood begins at conception, that embryos are people and that killing them to help other people is simply wrong. Although this view about the moral status of embryos does not square with what is known about them--science has shown that embryos require more than genes in order to develop, that not all embryos have the capacity to become a person and that not all conception begins a life--it at least has the virtue of moral clarity.
But aside from those who see embryos as tiny people, such clarity of moral vision is absent among cloning opponents. Consider the views of Leon Kass, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and Francis Fukuyama. Each says he opposes research involving the cloning of human embryos. Each has been pushing furiously in the media and in policy circles to make the case that nothing could be more morally heinous than harvesting stem cells from such embryos. And each says that his repugnance at the idea of cloning research has nothing to do with a religiously based view of what an embryo is.
The core of the case against cloning for cures is that it involves the creation, to quote the latest in a landslide of moral fulminations from Krauthammer, "of a human embryo for the sole purpose of using it for its parts...it will sanction the creation of an entire industry of embryo manufacture whose explicit purpose is...dismemberment for research." Sounds like a very grim business indeed--and some progressives, notably Jeremy Rifkin and Norman Mailer, have sounded a similar alarm as they have joined the anticloning crusade.
From the secular viewpoint, which Krauthammer and like-minded cloning opponents claim to hold, there is no evidence for the position that embryonic clones are persons or even potential persons. As a simple fact of science, embryos that reside in dishes are going nowhere. The potential to become anything requires a suitable environment. Talk of "dismemberment," which implicitly confers moral status on embryos, betrays the sort of faith-based thinking that Krauthammer says he wants to eschew. Equally ill-informed is the notion that equivalent medical benefits can be derived from research on adult stem cells; cloned embryonic stem cells have unique properties that cannot be duplicated.
The idea that women could be transformed into commercial egg farms also troubles Krauthammer, as well as some feminists and the Christian Medical Association. The CMA estimates that to make embryonic stem-cell cloning work, more than a billion eggs would have to be harvested. But fortunately for those hoping for cures, the CMA is wrong: Needed now for cloned embryonic stem-cell research are thousands of eggs, not billions. While cloning people is a long shot, cloning embryos is not, and it should be possible to get the research done either by paying women for their eggs or asking those who suffer from a disease, or who know someone they care about who has a disease, to donate them. Women are already selling and donating eggs to others who are trying to have babies. Women and men are also donating their kidneys, their bone marrow and portions of their livers to help others, at far greater risk to themselves than egg donation entails. And there is no reason that embryo splitting, the technique used today in animals, could not provide the requisite embryo and cloned stem-cell lines to treat all in need without a big increase in voluntary egg donation from women.
In addition to conjuring up the frightening but unrealistic image of women toiling in Dickensian embryo-cloning factories, those like Krauthammer, who would leave so many senior citizens unable to move their own bodies, offer two other moral thoughts. If we don't draw the line at cloning for cures, there will soon enough be a clone moving into your neighborhood; and besides, it is selfish and arrogant to seek to alter our own genetic makeup to live longer.
The reality is that cloning has a terrible track record in making embryos that can become fetuses, much less anything born alive. The most recent review of cloning research shows an 85 percent failure rate in getting cow embryos to develop into animals. And of those clones born alive, a significant percentage, more than a third, have serious life-threatening health problems. Cloned embryos have far less potential than embryos created the old-fashioned way, or even frozen embryos, of becoming anything except a ball of cells that can be tricked into becoming other cells that can cure diseases. Where Krauthammer sees cloned embryos as persons drawn and quartered for their organs, in reality there exists merely a construct of a cell that has no potential to become anything if it is kept safely in a dish and almost no potential to develop even if it is put into a womb. Indeed, current work on primate cloning has been so unproductive, which is to say none made to date, that there is a growing sentiment in scientific circles that human cloning for reproduction is impossible. The chance of anyone cloning a full-fledged human is almost nil, but in any case there is no reason that it cannot be stopped simply by banning the transfer of these embryos into wombs.
But should we really be manipulating our genes to try to cure diseases and live longer? Kass and Fukuyama, in various magazine pieces and books, say no--that it is selfish and arrogant indulgence at its worst. Humanity is not meant to play with its genes simply to live longer and better.
Now, it can be dangerous to try to change genes. One young man is dead because of an experiment in gene therapy at my medical school. But the idea that genes are the defining essence of who we are and therefore cannot be touched or manipulated recalls the rantings of Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Doctor Strangelove, who wanted to preserve the integrity of his precious bodily fluids. There's nothing inherently morally wrong with trying to engineer cells, genes and even cloned embryos to repair diseases and terminal illnesses. Coming from those who type on computers, wear glasses, inject themselves with insulin, have had an organ transplant, who walk with crutches or artificial joints or who have used in vitro fertilization or neonatal intensive care to create their children, talk of the inviolate essence of human nature and repugnance at the "manufactured" posthuman is at best disingenuous.
The debate over human cloning and stem cell research has not been one of this nation's finest moral hours. Pseudoscience, ideology and plain fearmongering have been much in evidence. If the discussions were merely academic, this would be merely unfortunate. They are not. The flimsy case against cloning for cures is being brought to the White House, the Senate and the American people as if the opponents hold the moral high ground. They don't. The sick and the dying do. The Senate must keep its moral priorities firmly in mind as the vote on banning therapeutic cloning draws close.