TCS Daily

A Cloning Compromise

By Ramesh Ponnuru - June 20, 2002 12:00 AM

Until recently, human cloning has looked like an issue not amenable to compromise.

Various attempts to craft a compromise have foundered. One suggestion-taken up by Senators Feinstein, Hatch, Specter, and others-is to ban cloning for the purpose of creating babies (so-called "reproductive cloning"), but to allow it for the purpose of creating embryos to be used in research and therapy. Supporters of this idea reason that it would ban what almost everyone agrees should be banned, while letting argument about more controversial matters to continue.

There are, however, two problems with this suggested compromise. First, it amounts to permitting the cloning of human embryos so long as they are destroyed rather than allowed to develop into babies. The bill proposed by Senators Feinstein et al is a ban on the implantation of a cloned embryo into a womb, rather than a ban on any kind of cloning. It is not true that everyone agrees on a ban on reproductive cloning if the ban works in this fashion. Pro-lifers strenuously object to the establishment in federal law, for the first time, of a class of human beings that it is a crime not to destroy. They consider enactment of the Feinstein bill worse than passing nothing at all.

Second, the Justice Department raises serious questions about the enforceability of this compromise even were it justifiable. The act of cloning an embryo for baby-making purposes would be identical to the act of cloning an embryo for research purposes, and it would be impossible to tell whether an embryo being implanted into a womb had been created through cloning.

Leon Kass, chairman of the president's bioethics commission, has tried to devise a different compromise. When Kass was appointed to head the commission, supporters of cloning complained that it would be stacked to reflect Kass's opposition to it. If that was Kass's plan, it wasn't executed competently: The commission is split at least four ways on the issue. So Kass has tried to see if most of its members would be willing to support a ban on reproductive cloning and a moratorium on research cloning.

Like Feinstein's bill, Kass's proposed compromise is Solomonic only in the sense that it splits the embryo. After the moratorium on research cloning ended, the law would follow Feinstein's bill and thus be, from the perspective of most pro-lifers, worse than the pre-compromise status quo.

With neither side willing to give, the Senate had reached a stalemate on cloning by early June. Forty-three or so senators supported a ban on all cloning sponsored by Senators Sam Brownback and Mary Landrieu; around the same number supported the Feinstein bill. Neither bill had anywhere near the sixty votes needed to break a filibuster.

So now Brownback is floating a new compromise idea: a two-year moratorium on both reproductive cloning and research cloning-on cloning a human embryo, that is, for any purpose. This compromise may have some promise. It would certainly not be the ideal policy for either side of the debate, but it would be a rout for neither.

For supporters of research cloning, a moratorium would not be as bad as a permanent ban. It would, however, carry costs. The pro-cloning forces believe that research cloning holds out the possibility of eventually saving lives and relieving suffering. A moratorium, even if succeeded by a permissive regime, could delay the breakthroughs they seek. From their perspective, then, some patients might suffer and die because of the moratorium.

For opponents of the research, a moratorium falls short of the principle that animates their position: that all human lives, no matter at what stage of development or how created, should be protected in law. We don't normally enact moratoria on homicide. But a moratorium would not violate the principle, either, and would leave cloning opponents free to fight for it another day. Opponents can also hope that the demand for cloning will fall during the moratorium. Perhaps other types of research that do not require the destruction of human embryos-such as research on stem cells taken from adults-will generate the medical breakthroughs sought.

For both sides, whether to support a moratorium turns on political judgments. Some opponents may prefer a Senate deadlock, hoping to ride the issue in the November elections. According to a mid-May Gallup poll, 61 percent of American adults oppose cloning human embryos for biomedical research and only 34 percent support it. An earlier poll by Kellyanne Conway for Americans to Ban Cloning found a similar result, and also found that opponents were more likely to vote on the issue. Opponents are also heartened by the facts that the president is both very popular and agrees with them.

Given those political realities, it's remarkable that supporters of cloning have been so successful in resisting a ban. Resisting a mere moratorium may prove harder.

The writer is Senior Editor for National Review.



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