Last week, the Brownback-Weldon bill to prohibit human cloning was introduced on Capitol Hill. And the arguments against it are ... well, as it turns out, there really aren't many arguments against a ban on manufacturing human beings like gingerbread men from a cookie cutter.
It's true, of course, that some propositions resembling arguments for cloning have been advanced in recent years. But under scrutiny, these ostensible arguments quickly dissolve into a fog of vague, unfocused feelings about science, sex and the human condition.
Take, for example, the claim that to prohibit cloning would be to prevent a grief-stricken mother and father from replacing their dead daughter with a new, genetically identical daughter who will somehow erase the loss of their first daughter. You don't have to delve very far into philosophical questions of identity and existence to realize that the notion is so confused and self-contradictory, it won't even bear the weight of its own expression. But the point of invoking those grieving parents is not to present an argument. The point is to express a feeling: Death ought not to sting, the grave should not have the victory, the ones we love must come back to life. And so cloning enthusiasts look to science — as to a god — to wipe away our tears, to assuage the eternal pity and to console human grief.
Or take, for another example, the claim that a ban on human cloning would be a blow against Roe v. Wade. Some anti-abortion activists do make this argument. They say everything bad begins with a disrespect for human life: The unfettered right to abortion grants us a Promethean power of life and death over our unborn offspring that naturally leads to practices like cloning. Thus, the argument goes, we can succeed in banning cloning only by winning — today — the battle over abortion. Many supporters of cloning actually make the same argument, although they run it in reverse to frighten off liberal Democrats: A ban on cloning, they warn, would mean the loss of "a woman's right to choose"; America can thus guarantee the full abortion license only by allowing cloning to proceed unhindered.
Our fellow pro-lifers may well be right that there is an underlying logic linking these issues. But the truth is — and this is the vital political point — we can ban cloning without touching Roe v. Wade. Indeed, the debate over cloning shouldn't be forced back into the well-worn grooves of the abortion debate. The issue of cloning offers the possibility of some interesting realignments in American politics. This is an issue, after all, on which radical environmentalists and religious evangelicals find themselves in agreement — which would be impossible if the right-to-choose equals right-to-clone argument were definitive. But then, this was never meant to be a genuine argument. It is meant instead to express a feeling — a feeling that radical individualism, sexual liberation and modern science have all somehow combined to bring us to this point, and to reject any piece of it now, even the reproduction of human beings by cloning, is to return to the Dark Ages.
And take, for a final example, the claim that a law against cloning human beings will make us forfeit potential advances in medicine. Who could be opposed to experiments that might lead to a cure for cancer, a fully compatible liver for transplanting, a genetically engineered solution to diabetes? But examined more closely, the hoped-for medical advances turn out to be merely examples of things that researchers promise they will try to find, if only we leave them alone to play with human cloning as much as they like.
The manipulation of stem cells obtained from cloned embryos is asserted to be necessary for the desired medical breakthroughs. And the use of these putative therapeutic miracles in pro-cloning arguments seems to have survived unscathed despite the recent evidence that it is possible to obtain the required stem cells not from embryos but from adults' blood, bone marrow, brain tissue, and even fat cells. It has survived unscathed, for that matter, the disastrous initial results of stem-cell treatment (in which the cells, derived from embryos, went wild and began producing not merely brain tissue but other tissue as well when introduced into the brains of some of their new hosts).
But then, the promise of unlimited medical advance was never really an argument for keeping cloning legal. It is a feeling, a sentiment, masquerading as an argument — and perhaps the most insidious of them all. A vague belief in the capacity of human beings to obtain any end through beneficent science has oddly joined a vague belief in the incapacity of human beings to halt the march of science or decide what those ends should be. Once we add in the thousands of university laboratories anxious for the acclaim of scientific breakthroughs and the dozens of large pharmaceutical companies hungry for new technologies, the use of cloning simply feels like the future: unavoidable, inexorable and predetermined. Might as well oppose the rising of tomorrow's sun, we are counseled, as try to halt the arrival of human cloning.
Yet halt it we can, and should — for reasons compellingly presented by such thinkers as Leon Kass and Gilbert Meilaender. Those reasons range from the extraordinarily high incidence of deformity among cloned animals, to the familial confusion that will be engendered by reproducing oneself as one's own child, to the likely psychological damage to the person created by cloning, and, most fundamentally, to the fact that moving from the begetting of our children to the manufacture of our descendants is a radical and perhaps irreparable dehumanization.
American politics being what it is, there will be an attempt to find a "compromise" on this issue, as there was when Congress last considered it in 1998. The favored form of compromise prohibits "reproductive" cloning while allowing "therapeutic" cloning to continue unabated. But a ban solely on reproductive uses only looks like a compromise. It's actually a victory for the pro-cloning forces — and everyone opposed to the onslaught of human cloning must reject it out of hand. For what this "compromise" would mean is a license to practice all the cloning a scientist may desire, while vainly attempting to prevent the end toward which that practice clearly aims: The live birth of cloned human beings.
Part of the problem is the question of intention. Since all embryonic clones are made in the same way, we cannot know the reason for which an embryo was created until it is either destroyed in research or implanted in a womb. Of course, once it has been implanted, a law against reproductive cloning would clearly have been violated. But there is at that point no possible redress, short of forced abortions or a federal pregnancy police determining how each pregnancy in America came about.
Then, too, there is the problem of the status of the embryos created by cloning. For those who are pro-life, of course, the embryo and the fetus are already members of the human race, and it is wrong simply to destroy them. But even the federal directives for biological research, which do not admit the personhood of embryos, nonetheless demand that they be treated with "profound respect." And a law banning only reproductive cloning would produce, for the first time in federal statutes, a class of embryos it is a crime not to destroy, a class of embryos that must not be treated with profound respect.
Recent events in England are instructive. On April 19, Health Secretary Alan Milburn announced, to great fanfare in the British press, that Britain would shortly become the first country in the world to ban human cloning. But all he really meant was that Britain would prohibit reproduction by cloning, while continuing to promote the actual practice of cloning by encouraging laboratories to perfect their techniques. It was as polished an example of studied disingenuousness and blatant obfuscation as one will ever see. Four days later, the head of Britain's embryology authority quietly announced that scientists who had gone abroad to do embryo research illegal in Britain could return to "continuing acclaim."
For America, the lesson is clear: The only way to stop human reproductive cloning is to ban all human cloning, and to ban it now. There is no middle ground here, not merely because the principles involved do not admit it, but because the actual practice grants no room for compromise. To allow human cloning for medical and biological research is necessarily to allow — in the very near future — cloning for the reproduction of human beings.
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