TCS Daily


Let's Get Person-al

By Nick Schulz - May 31, 2002 12:00 AM

UCLA law professor
Eugene Volokh
made an important point on his web log this week about how activists can sometimes undermine their own cause by alienating moderates who might otherwise be predisposed to support their position. The context of his remark was the debate about abortion. But it could just as easily have applied to the contentious issue of biotechnology.

Consider this week a rhetorical attack launched by the Washington Post's Richard Cohen against opponents of therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning is the process by which DNA from an adult human cell is transferred to an enucleated egg cell. It is then zapped with electricity to prompt cell division and thus create a cloned blastocyst that can be harvested for stem cells. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas is the author of legislation currently being considered that would ban this procedure.

Now, Cohen is an effective polemicist and his views on cloning are shared by many, so it's worth paying attention to his remarks. But his arguments on this subject are so riddled with errors of logic -- and at the same time so pumped full of moral posturing and obnoxious ad hominem swipes -- that they only serve to put off many of those who might agree with his overall point about the imprudence of a cloning ban.

For starters, the beliefs of those who disagree with Cohen are mischaracterized by him. He does this to set up a straw man he can then knock down. Cohen says that with cloning "at no time [is a] human egg fertilized. So if you believe that life begins at conception, you are not getting life with this process."

But this is nonsense. As the Harvard biologist Charles Murtaugh, who supports therapeutic cloning, points out on his web log "once you transplant a nucleus into an egg, the process of embryogenesis is initiated. ... On this point, the strong pro-embryo people like [National Review's] Ramesh Ponnuru are right: a cloned embryo is a human life, just as is a sperm-and-egg-fertilized embryo."

Cohen then alleges that Brownback and the bill's supporters want to impose their beliefs on other people. "Brownback and his supporters are entitled to their beliefs. But they are primarily religious ones -- a determination that life begins when they believe it does ... [Brownback's] bill is nothing less than an attempt to impose a religious doctrine on the rest of us."

Now, it's true that the belief about when life begins that is embodied in the Brownback bill can be considered religious in nature. But that's only because any determination about when life begins can be considered that way. When I asked Princeton's Lee Silver, the author of "Remaking Eden" and a cloning proponent, about the debate over when human life begins, he said "it's important to understand what most people are really asking when they say, 'When does human life begin?' what they are really asking is: 'When does the human organism gain a human soul?' This question has nothing to do with science or with the various meanings of life. It is entirely a question of religious beliefs."

Murtaugh makes a similar point on his web log. "Whether [a cloned embryo] should be considered a person is a different question, which I don't think can be answered by scientific criteria."

What Cohen doesn't seem to realize is that his own determination about when personhood does or does not begin -- "I don't think a cloned cell is a person," he says -- is as much an article of faith as someone who thinks it is a person. Cohen isn't saying that a cloned blastocyst isn't a human organism. That's because a cloned blastocyst is a human organism.

The important debate here is about one's conception of personhood. And our notions of personhood (such as when personhood begins or the unalienable rights accorded to each person), while informed by science, ultimately rest on articles of faith. Cohen thinks a cloning ban is illegitimate because he says a blastocyst is not human person. Fine. But that assertion is based on his own belief, one that's subjective, even religious in nature. So his complaint that his opponents are seeking to impose their beliefs on others -- and that that effort is inherently suspect -- is a non-starter.

Lastly, the effort to prohibit cloning is described by Cohen as "an attempt by legislative fiat to stop science in its tracks: Thou Shalt Remain Ignorant." This loaded language -- belittling a coherent philosophical position as anti-intellectual and, horror of horrors, informed by religious principles -- only serves to signal to those who might support cloning research that cloning proponents are reflexively hostile to religious belief. Many cloning advocates, of course, aren't hostile to religious faith, but some of them are, and Cohen's zealous rant only reinforces suspicions held by those who worry about the motives of cloning proponents.

Those who are optimistic about the prospects for a future shaped by biotechnology should cringe when hearing arguments like Cohen's. His arguments alienates potential allies; they are not at all helpful to the pro-cloning side.

URL Next Door -- This week the spotlight shines on the blog published by the folks at The American Prospect magazine called Tapped. For too long the blogosphere has been dominated by right-of-center and libertarian bloggers. That's fine so far as it goes, but the echo chamber effect wasn't healthy for vigorous discourse. The folks at Tapped run an interesting, funny, and provocative blog and it's a welcome addition to the blogging universe (even if they liked the Cohen article that I found so awful.)
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