TCS Daily


Brave New World, Indeed

By Duane D. Freese - May 22, 2002 12:00 AM

Many proponents of a congressional ban on therapeutic cloning have the issue backwards. They are demanding that scientists demonstrate the efficacy of their research into this procedure to avert a ban.

"The cloning issue will remain a political and intellectual mess unless its proponents engage the other side and just this once make a more philosophically rigorous case for opening this door and stepping through," wrote Daniel Henninger, deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal in early May.

But it is cloning's critics who must prove the necessity for a ban. In a free society, the citizen going about his or her business isn't the one who assumes the burden of proving why the government shouldn't ban what he or she is doing. You're innocent until proven guilty of something, not the other way around.

So of what would scientists who engage in therapeutic cloning be guilty? Or, more simply, whom are they harming (or imminently will they harm) if they are allowed to continue their therapeutic cloning experiments? From my perspective, no one is harmed.

Devilish Details

Cloning (also called somatic cell nuclear transfer) is a process that involves destroying the nucleus of an egg cell from the species to be cloned. Then a nucleus is removed from the cell of some part of the animal - all cells contain whole copies of the individual's DNA -- of the same species. That nucleus is injected into the (now enucleated) egg cell. An electric current is supplied. And the egg, with its new nucleus, begins to divide.

Now, in the case of reproductive cloning, this egg after several rounds of division is implanted into a female's uterus to grow into an identical genetic copy of the donor of the cell DNA. The procedure is dicey: With animal cloning efforts like the one used to produce the sheep Dolly, many clones developed deformed or they died before a successful healthy clone was born. As such, most scientists don't think it's close to ready as a reproductive technique for humans. If it is tried, two people face possible physical and emotional jeopardy by the process - the woman carrying the clone and the cloned child itself.
In the case of therapeutic cloning, the embryonic clones aren't implanted into a woman's womb. And they don't grow into a fetus. Rather, the stem cells that develop in the early stages of embryonic formation are isolated. These cells can then be manipulated to grow specialized cells and tissue. In this procedure, the embryo is itself destroyed.
Now the question is: Is the destruction of that embryo the moral and legal equivalent of killing a person? Because unless you see a person in the petri dish where scientists perform the genetic manipulation to create clones, the answer to the question 'who is harmed?' is: no one.
And if you do see a person in that petri dish, then your opposition isn't merely to cloning. It's to many forms of birth control such as the IUD, and in vitro fertilization (because it requires creation of extra embryos that will be destroyed). And that opposition would, of course, extend to abortion as well. Unfortunately for the opponents of therapeutic cloning, that is a particular view of personhood that neither the law nor most of the public accepts.
Shifting Rhetorical Gears
The opponents to cloning know this. So, the arguments they advance get dressed up with what amounts to speculation about future dangers - "Brave New World," by Aldous Huxley, being the favorite analogue.

President Bush, for example, in calling for a ban on all cloning, argued: "Research cloning would contradict the most fundamental principle of medical ethics, that no human life should be exploited or extinguished for the benefit of another."

In other words, he sees a person in the petri dish. And if stopped there, we would be left with the perennial debate over when begins a human life that is entitled to the rights and protections in the Constitution. But Bush didn't stop there. He goes on: "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, and that's not acceptable."

Furthermore, Bush says that a blanket ban on cloning - therapeutic cloning as well as reproductive cloning -- is needed because a law permitting cloning limited to research purposes would be "virtually impossible to enforce," as cloned cells would be "widely available in laboratories and embryo farms" and the government could not guarantee that none was implanted into a woman.

Let's assume for the sake of this argument that reproductive cloning is morally reprehensible. It's certainly true that some scientist might implant a woman with an embryo and probably can't be stopped if there are willing partners. But by that logic, banning therapeutic cloning out of fears that it might enable attempts at reproductive cloning is akin to banning flight because some terrorist might highjack a plane to crash into a building, or trucks because they might be turned into truck bombs.

As for the argument that therapeutic cloning might lead to children "engineered to custom specifications," again that is a future application of science. Scientists attempting it would presumably want to be paid. They would advertise. And regulatory structures now in place hold people who would sell something liable for health and medical claims for which they can't prove the safety and efficacy. And would it be so terrible to design out certain genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, and others that sometimes prompt parents to chose abortion rather than give birth to a child who will experience intense suffering until death?

Finally, as for growing embryos for people to use as body parts, there are two major barriers.

First is a natural one. The growth of an embryo to the stage where either the law or most Americans would consider it human can't take place in a petri dish. It requires implantation into a woman's womb. Few women are going to grow a fetus for use as body parts. And if done to the stage where the fetus is considered human, then the conspiracy will involve doctors and nurses willing to perform operations.

Secondly, to overcome the natural barrier takes a lot of money and resources and facilities. It will not be a secret if an artificial womb is created and then government can step in to prevent harm.

Imminent Threat?

At bottom, cloning opponents are putting forth slippery slope arguments that don't bear up under scrutiny. They are weaker than the old "bad influence" test that the Supreme Court once applied to determine whether a person could be put away for making incendiary speeches against the government. And if these kinds of arguments were applied to the debate on gun ownership, they would advocate an immediate ban on all weapons because someone might use them for criminal purposes.

Scientific experimentation and inquiry are as fundamental rights as either the right to free speech or the right to bear arms. Banning scientific experimentation and inquiry is the equivalent of an attempt at thought control - and so the purported harm must be as imminent as that required to keep a newspaper from publishing a story or punishing a speaker for his utterance in the court house square or taking a gun from the hands of a hunter.

That perhaps explains why Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer argues that the danger from therapeutic cloning is an imminent threat to society.

"What makes research cloning different from stem cell research (where stem cells are taken from extra embryos created for in vitro fertilization) -- what pushes us over a moral frontier -- is that for the first time it sanctions the creation of a human embryo for the sole purpose of using it for its parts. Indeed, it will sanction the creation of an entire industry of embryo manufacture whose explicit purpose is not creation of children but dismemberment for research." That's worse, according to Krauthammer, than reproductive cloning because "the intention is not to produce a cloned child but to grow the embryo long enough to dismember it for its useful scientific parts." It amounts to "the ultimate commodification of the human embryo."

Again, this argument depends on us seeing the embryo in the petri dish as a person. Only under that purview would "the commodfication" of those cells be more morally problematic than, say, the commodification of other live human cells - blood from blood donors, sperm from sperm donors, ovum from women, bone marrow transfer, kidney cells or organs. Otherwise, why does Krauthammer draw his line with a cloned embryo?

Indeed, take the logic of that argument all the way down the slippery slope. Unless one first argues that the embryo in the petri dish is a person separate from the donor, one could argue logically that the real mystery of life is where life begins in the first place. And absent that mystery unraveling, all genetic research is potentially morally problematic and should be halted.

And that's the slippery slope that should be feared. While cloning's opponents see Huxley's "Brave New World" as being brought about by the advance of genetic science, I see Huxley's "Brave New World" as more likely a result of government gaining too much power and control. If the government bans therapeutic cloning without demonstrating clearly - and having the courage to state explicitly -- whom it harms or endangers; if it deprives people of their liberty without proving they've hurt anyone, then we are in a Brave New World, indeed.
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