TCS Daily

Cloning, Dignity and Politics

By Charles Murtaugh - July 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Man is a political animal. It is in his nature to care about what the neighbors are doing, and to compel their behavior even in cases where it doesn't directly affect him. Not all such compulsions are justifiable, but neither can they all be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, it is through these rules and compulsions, some backed by force of law, that man weaves the fabric of society, a unique and wonderful creation.

If you made it through that paragraph without choking, then you'll probably find something to like in Human Cloning and Human Dignity, the report newly issued by the President's Council on Bioethics, led by Leon Kass. Although much media coverage of the report has rightly focused on the divisions that it reveals, one can also read the report as a near-unanimous endorsement of the value of argument over societal goods, and of the notion that government has a role to play in securing such goods. The report will not please serious libertarians.

Nor will it please those who think that politics has no place in a discussion of principles and ethics. If the scene inside a sausage factory repels you, then turn away from Human Cloning and Human Dignity. The report is a half-made sausage, with the filling squeezing out of gaps in the skin. This is, in fact, one of its chief virtues.

In his preface, Leon Kass notes that President Bush initially specified that the Council on Bioethics need not be constrained by "an overriding concern to find consensus." Speaking for the members, Kass observes that, "In this report we have chosen not to be so constrained." Instead, separate majority and minority recommendations are presented, along with a range of supporting arguments. Importantly, the policy recommendations are made without complete agreement about their underlying rationales. Politics intrudes: the members who vote together are willing to disagree on the principles underlying their common vote. In this way, the report "looks like America," or more precisely it looks like American politics.

The major faultline within the commission is over embryo cloning, or as the report has it, "cloning-for-biomedical-research." (The report deserves special praise for its chapter on terminology, which faces up to the reality of embryos and clones.) The Council members are unanimous in favoring a ban on reproductive cloning, or "cloning-to-produce-children," but even here there are interesting distinctions in terms of emphasis. For instance, in his personal statement (the personal statements of the members, presented as an Appendix to the report, are fascinating and valuable), Robert P. George and Alfonso Gómez-Lobo suggest that, "A ban [on implantation of a cloned embryo] would certainly be challenged, and the challenge would likely come from a powerful coalition of "pro-life" and "pro-choice" forces." As if picking up the baton, Gilbert Meilander writes in his own statement that, "an industry of routinized embryo cloning ... would be an even greater moral evil than the gestation and birth of a cloned human being."

It may be worth noting the fact that George, Gómez-Lobo and Meilander focus their intellectual energy on embryo cloning, rather than the supposedly more shocking idea of baby cloning. Their choice of emphasis weighs against the idea that cloning opponents are united by an "ew, gross!" fear of the new.

Ultimately it isn't surprising that the Council unanimously opposes baby cloning; this is the position taken by at least nine out of ten Americans. Also, like the country at large, the Council is divided on the question of embryo cloning. Here, a ten member majority favors a four-year moratorium on the research, while a seven-member minority prefers no prohibition at all. Again, the majority recommendation reflects internal divisions, between seven members who want a total ban on embryo cloning and three who want only the regulatory "breathing room" provided by a moratorium.

In papering over their differences, are the anti-cloners playing politics? Absolutely, and those of us who don't want to see embryo cloning banned can probably learn something from them. One of the remarkable aspects of the report, and its abundant supporting materials, it that the political maneuvering is done right out in the open. For instance, in the transcript of the June 20 meeting, Kass mentions that the moratorium concept "comes from headquarters," i.e. presumably from the White House itself, which is trying to salvage its anti-cloning effort in the Senate. There, Senator Sam Brownback is backing a moratorium on embryo cloning as an alternative to the total ban he previously proposed, and which is now considered politically unfeasible.

A proposal for a ban would have been equally unfeasible within the bioethics commission, due to the division in the anti-cloning majority. Those of us who assumed that the Council was stacked in favor of Bush's own strict anti-cloning position have to acknowledge that its final report turned out better than we expected. As longtime Kass skeptic Virginia Postrel notes, Bush's panel ended up less stacked than its predecessor under President Clinton.

Does that mean its report is perfect? I can hardly say so, not least because I would have voted with the minority. And Postrel is certainly right to suggest that one reason for balance in the report was that "all the criticism of Kass prior to the commission's appointment affected its composition. That criticism forced him to publicly state that the commission would represent a range of viewpoints and make sure he wasn't shown to be a liar." But this, too, highlights the Bioethics Council's sausage-making nature: it was born in politics, and it lives a political life. That doesn't mean that its deliberations are less valuable or interesting. No matter your opinion on the issues, you'll find both vigorous support and challenge in Human Cloning and Human Dignity. Vigorous and respectful: the report reflects the deliberation of members who, while not quite agreeing to disagree, at least agreed to treat each other seriously. Even if its unconcealed divisions prevent it from dramatically affecting the outcome of the cloning debate, it would be welcome if it changed the tenor of the discussion.



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