TCS Daily

Reason, Not Faith

By Ramesh Ponnuru - August 14, 2002 12:00 AM

In the debate over cloning, one frequently runs across the claim that opposition to the deliberate destruction of embryonic human life is a (necessarily) "theological position." The assertion is usually made as a way of dismissing the pro-life view on cloning. If opposition to cloning is based on theological commitments, there is no reason for people who do not share those commitments to oppose it and it may be oppressive for the law to reflect those commitments.

Nobody has ever made it clear to me why, if the notion that embryos deserve protection from being killed is theological, the notion that they do not deserve protection isn't equally theological.

Nonetheless, the assertion itself is false. The case against destroying embryonic human life does not depend on theological premises, and is therefore a case that can in principle be embraced by people with widely varying theological commitments or indeed by people who do not understand themselves to have any theological commitments at all. It is not necessary to believe that blastocysts have souls, or will go to Heaven when they die, in order to oppose their deliberate killing.

To oppose research cloning, it is necessary to believe 1) that the early embryo is a living member of the human species and 2) that all entities that meet this description have intrinsic worth such that it is wrong intentionally to destroy them. To support research cloning, it is necessary to deny one or both of these premises.

The first premise is based on well-known biological facts. The embryo is alive, not dead or inanimate. It is human, not a member of some other species. It contains the human genome. It is an organism, not a part of another organism like one of your skin cells (which, of course, also contains the human genome but is not a human being). It is a complete entity that directs its own continuous development. You were never a skin cell, nor a sperm or egg cell; but you were once a one-celled embryo.

The second premise is based on philosophical considerations that perhaps become clearest when juxtaposed with the alternative view. If the embryo is a human being but has no right to life, obviously it must be true that not all human beings have intrinsic worth and deserve not to be killed. If that is true, then it must also be true that human beings possess what worth they do not in virtue of their being human beings but, rather, in virtue of some traits that they have acquired that other human beings do not.

The candidates most commonly proposed for the role of that special acquired characteristic are consciousness, mental functioning, making choices, and the like. But if the right to life is tied too closely to these characteristics, it is not only embryonic human beings that will be found not to deserve protection. Infants lack the immediately exercisable capacity for mental functioning as well. So do the comatose and the severely retarded, not to mention people who are sleeping.

Also: Since the acquired characteristics on which human rights are said to hinge typically come in varying and continuous degrees, it is hard to see why human beings should be considered equal in their rights. As Kass council members Robert P. George and Alfonso Gómez-Lobo put it, "The proposition that all human beings are considered equal would be relegated to the status of a superstition."

Supporters of cloning have argued that this logic is faulty. They have said, for example, that the ascription of intrinsic worth to the days-old embryo is inconsistent with common moral sentiments: Nobody mourns when such embryos are spontaneously aborted. This argument is, in my view, risible. Whether someone has a right not to be killed cannot depend on how others feel about him. But notice that these arguments do not concern theological points. No propositions about God or salvation need be believed or disbelieved to affirm or deny the points in question.

It is true, of course, that religious believers have been prominent among opponents of cloning. But in general, their position has not rested on doctrines about, say, ensoulment, still less on any belief that God has revealed, in some direct way, His opposition to cloning to them. If some opponents do happen to believe that the early embryo has a soul, that belief is more likely to be the result of their view that the embryo is a human being with intrinsic worth than the cause of that view.

Which is not to say that God doesn't enter the picture. Many of us who believe that research cloning involves the unjust destruction of human life believe that it is, precisely for that reason, a sin against God. To the extent that we have reasoned correctly, our reasons are (among) God's reasons as well.

The writer is a senior editor at National Review.



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