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
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.