TCS Daily

Divided On Cloning

By Charles Murtaugh - April 19, 2002 12:00 AM

Nobody following the therapeutic cloning debate could have been shocked to hear that the Bush administration relies on opinion polling to sell unpopular policies. As Nick Schulz has discussed, the strongest argument against therapeutic cloning, and in support of Sen. Sam Brownback's bill to ban it, is a pro-life one: therapeutic cloning involves the creation and destruction of human embryos, which is morally wrong. The problem for President Bush is that, at least when it comes to the very early embryos involved here, most Americans disagree.

Witness, for instance, the widespread support for embryonic stem cell research, which last summer forced the president into a compromise on NIH funding for the research. Similarly, a Gallup poll in November found that 54% of those surveyed approved of "cloning that is not designed specifically to result in the birth of a human being, but is designed to aid medical research that might find treatments for certain diseases." Not the most fertile ground for legislation.

On the other hand, this same poll found that a large majority of Americans -- 88% -- disapproved of "cloning that is designed specifically to result in the birth or a human being," i.e. reproductive cloning. This overwhelming public sentiment -- consistent in the polls since the appearance of the cloned sheep Dolly -- offers irresistible political leverage, and may explain why President Bush's recent statements in favor of the Brownback bill concentrated on the specter of cloned babies and children rather than on cloned blastocysts.

These two numbers -- 54% in favor of therapeutic cloning, or embryo cloning, and 88% opposed to baby cloning -- must reflect a significant amount of overlap. I place myself among those in the middle: I vehemently oppose reproductive cloning, but I support research on cloned embryos. Like many Americans, I'm unconvinced by the strict pro-life argument that an unimplanted ball of cells is a person. At the same time, I agree with the president's stance on reproductive cloning, and I would like to see the Senate prohibit the implantation of a cloned embryo into a woman's womb, without criminalizing the production of that embryo in the first place.

Urged on by his bioethics advisor Leon Kass, President Bush suggests that such a limited approach would open up a pair of slippery slopes, practical and ethical. On the one hand, legal embryo cloning would make it impossible to enforce a ban on reproductive cloning, because of the ease of obtaining embryos. On the other hand, if we allow ourselves to accept such a perverse practice, we open ourselves up to ultimately degrading the value of all human life. Both of these arguments are flawed, the first on a medical/scientific basis, and the second ethically.

If embryo cloning were permitted, Bush insisted, "Cloned human embryos created for research would be widely available in laboratories and embryo farms ... Even the tightest regulations and strict policing would not prevent or detect the birth of cloned babies." This ignores the fact that the highest barrier to reproductive cloning -- the rate-limiting step, to borrow a term from Biochemistry 101 -- is the natural barrier imposed by pregnancy. There are already open-market supplies of human eggs that could easily move onto a black market, should embryo cloning be banned. The mechanics of nuclear transfer can be mastered legally, using animal eggs -- in fact, given the high cost of human eggs, even legitimate embryo cloners would have to train on mice or rabbits first. And any mistakes made in embryo cloning could be easily concealed: no one outside the operation would ever know if a microscopic egg failed to divide, or a blastocyst suddenly ceased development.

On the other hand, studies in animals suggest that one could never keep a reproductive cloning clinic under wraps. Even in the best animal-cloning labs, working on a wide variety of mammalian species, no more than 5% of cloned embryos transferred to the womb go on to produce healthy live births. This means that for every five successfully cloned babies, produced by an underground lab, some 95 women will suffer spontaneous abortions and miscarriages. In a free country like ours, in which patients routinely sue their physicians for malpractice, it is impossible to imagine that none of those women would go to the press, or to the police.

It's no surprise, in fact, that the rogue fertility specialist Severino Antinori claims to be conducting his reproductive cloning research in a Middle Eastern country -- where else could he find women easily intimidated into silence when their supposed miracle babies miscarry, or emerge from the womb with unexpected birth defects?

In his speech, President Bush also claimed that, "Allowing cloning would be taking a significant step toward a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts, and children are engineered to custom specifications." Thus, if we relax our morals to accept embryo cloning, the ethical bright line protecting infants and children from exploitative research will be eroded.

The problem is that this argument only applies if one already agrees with the president's position on the moral status of the early embryo. Supporters of embryo cloning, like supporters of ES cell research, simply don't believe that destroying an early embryo is the same as murdering a person. Therefore, we don't have to see this research as somehow compromising us -- in fact, we consider it a moral good to try and help those suffering from disease.

I do think that there is a slippery slope here, but that it runs in the opposite direction. If President Bush is really opposed (as I am) to engineering children and growing fetuses for spare parts, he ought to focus his efforts on children and fetuses.

Before the stem-cell debate arose, the pro-life movement was enjoying considerable success with its attack on partial-birth abortions. It is as hard for abortion rights activists to defend late term abortions as it is for pro-life purists to convincingly condemn the destruction of blastocysts. Even at the end of the first trimester, a fetus is already recognizably human, and its personhood almost speaks for itself. I worry about attaching so much importance to the very earliest stages of life, in which personhood is unrecognizable. A skeptic might ask: If a ball of cells has the very same right to life as a fetus, as an infant, perhaps there is no such right to life at all?


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