TCS Daily

Is Cloning 'Pro-Life'?

By James Pinkerton - January 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Is human cloning controversial? Sure it is. But the most interesting argument isn't about whether Rael is for real; few believe that the white-suited, top-knotted Clonaid founder is a truth-teller. Rather, the most important divide, not yet entirely visible, is inside the anti-cloning camp. Put simply, the arguments made by the anti-cloners directly, albeit unintentionally, refute many of the arguments of the pro-lifers. Those internal contradictions within social conservatism could become an externalized breakdown in logic as the anti-cloners make yet another bid to enact banning legislation.

Wait a second, the reader might ask, "How could this be? How could the anti-cloners be pitted against the pro-lifers? After all, isn't it mostly the same folks-fundamentalist Christians, conservative Catholics, and a smattering of neoconservatives-who are leading the opposition to both procedures, abortion and cloning?" Yup, same folks. They argue, without realizing it, against themselves-yet another indicator of the tumultuous scientific and sexual tumbling that has occurred over the past few decades. That is, many of the arguments of the pro-lifers refute the arguments of the anti-cloners. Social conservatives, if they really thought about it, might be confused. Instead, they suffer from an unacknowledged schizophrenia, in which one lobe of social conservatism opposes the other.

Let's start by considering some of the arguments the anti-cloners make, then examine how the premises of the pro-lifers disagree with them, however unintended and seemingly ironic that disagreement might be.

Anti-Cloning Argument #1: "Cloned babies will be born with genetic defects that will damage the quality of their lives and shorten those lives." This is no doubt true, at least in the early stages of the technology; Dolly, for example, is prone to obesity. As for humans, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops argues that clones would suffer "unpredictable but devastating health problems."

Pro-Life Counter-Argument: The problem here is that pro-lifers fight for the birth of unwell or retarded babies; they oppose abortion no matter how severe the handicap. For example, there's "Down's Syndrome Parents For Life," a cyberspace support group for "parents of Down Syndrome children who are committed to eradicating the practice of aborting babies with Down's Syndrome." Indeed, a growing school of thought views such defects not as undesirable handicaps, but rather as a desirable form of "diversity," or even a valuable spur to spirituality. Martha Beck's autobiographical memoir, Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic, a steady seller five years after its publication, argues, in effect, that a Down's Syndrome child is a good thing since it encourages the "growth" of the parents. The anti-cloners/pro-lifers can't have it both ways. If cloning is bad because it creates defects, then bringing defective children into the world can't be good.

Anti-Cloning Argument #2: "Life will be destroyed in the process of cloning." Dolly the Cloned Sheep was one of 277 attempts; the other 276 did not survive. The Children of God for Life group, based in Clearwater, Florida, declares that the destruction of embryos in the creation of humans would be "selfish and cannibalistic."

Pro-Life Counter Argument: The pro-lifers want to defend life as they know it, but what is life? If one follows traditional Catholic dogma-that life begins at conception-one hits a huge problem: the clone has never been "conceived." That is, whereas a "traditional" embryo is the result of a sperm and egg uniting, a clone is simply a duplication of a single cell, its nucleus transplanted into an egg cell. So what makes it alive, and distinct from any other kind of cell? And for that matter, what makes it dead? Anti-cloners now say that a cloned embryo is a "potential life" and so must be protected, not discarded in the laboratory, as happened to Dolly's 276 brothers and sisters. Indeed, the notion of potential life resonates in Catholic thinking; concern for the loss of such "life" undergirded Catholic opposition to all forms of contraception. But if all potential life must be sheltered, then why not allow clones? After all, every cell today is a potential life.

Anti-Cloning Argument #3: "We are playing God, taking life into our hands." Roman Catholic Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va. asserts, "When man takes into his own hands the creative acts of God or the destruction of the creative acts of God, he is acting as God, and will succumb to the same fall as Eve and Adam in the Garden."

Pro-Life Counter Argument: OK, if "playing God" is so bad, then why aren't pro-lifers protesting In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)? Three decades ago, alarm bells went off about the prospect of IVF- "Frankenstein," "Rosemary's Baby," and so on. But since the healthy birth, on July 25, 1978, of Louise Brown, the first "test tube baby," the selecting of a fertilized egg for implantation into a mother's womb has been firmly and legally established; in the past quarter-century, some 50,000 American women have given birth through this technique. Indeed, the technique of IVF is worth dwelling upon, because its essence is improving the chances of implantation; that is, aiding in the attachment of the tiny embryo to the uterine wall. Only when such embedding occurs can pregnancy proceed. One might ask: should the attempt to do that embedding be regarded as for or against life? So IVF is the precursor to cloning; if the first out-of-the-womb child-bearing technique proved successful, then maybe the second out-of-the womb child-bearing technique will prove out, too. So when the anti-cloners say that the selection of life requires the destruction of life-and therefore, such selecting should be banned-they are seemingly on a collision course not just with the prospect of cloning but the on-the-ground reality of 300 clinics across the country that offer IVF. And in theory, the anti-cloners should be joined by the pro-lifers. But the pro-lifers long ago abandoned what little anti-IVF crusading they ever did.

Anti-Cloning Argument #4: "Cloning is eugenics-and not only that, it's Nazi-like." The conservative evangelical Chuck Colson wants a ban on all human cloning research, writing, "The lid on Pandora's box of unethical biotechnology has been raised. Now is the time to slam it back down and lock it tight." William L. Saunders of the Family Research Council is one of many anti-cloners to use the "n" word. In an essay, "Finding the Line Between Good and Evil: The Cloning of Human Beings in Light of the Nuremburg Code," he creates a syllogism: the Nazis used the world "therapeutic" to justify their evil schemes, and now pro-cloning scientists use the same word to defend what they do. Ergo, there's not much difference between Nazism in practice and cloning in practice.

Pro-Life Counter Argument: Nobody likes Nazis; today, those who throw around the "n" word are usually showing their own desperation. Yet utterly un-Hitlerian humans have been engaged in what might be called "soft" eugenics for eons, picking mates, or not, according to whatever physical characteristics they find desirable, reproducing without special medical technology. One might wonder: how much potential life has been lost through such romantic choosing? But if pro-lifers really want to protect all life, they should be outraged about the increasingly common practice of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Using PGD, hopeful couples concerned over the risk of genetic defects-or who wish to select for sex-ask a doctor to create multiple fertilized embryos through IVF. After three days of growth, the DNA of each embryo is then examined, one is selected, and the rest destroyed. If one were of a certain turn of mind-that is, if one were to believe that each eight-cell clump is a human life-then laboratories where this occurs could indeed be compared to Nazi death camps. Do pro-lifers think this form of eugenics should be prohibited? If so, they should say so, and protest PGD clinics just like they protest abortion clinics. But the pro-lifers look the other way when it comes to PGD, perhaps because it is so difficult to overcome the yearning of would-be parents who merely wish to have a healthy child. Similarly, pro-lifers could advocate society take up the burden of protecting "surplus" eight-celled embryos, delivering them into life and rearing them into adulthood. Instead, the pro-lifers have made their peace with PGD process; yet in making such a peace, they have separated themselves from the anti-cloners, who cite just such embryo destruction as an argument against allowing cloning. And for that matter, if the anti-cloners really wanted to protect life, they would be out blockading PGD clinics today, not worrying about cloning centers tomorrow.

The fifth and final irony of the entire debate over cloning is that the reproductive technology being developed today is profoundly pro-life-in the largest sense. Think about it: the goal of all these efforts is the creation of new life. So while it would be easy to understand why the Zero Population Growthers would oppose technologically enhanced baby-making, the harder question is why the "pro-family" folks would oppose such innovations. If all life is precious, then why don't they want more of it?

Perhaps the answer goes back to the '60s, when modernizing lifestyle-liberators used technology, notably the Pill and surgical abortion, to foment a child-free sexual revolution. But now the situation has changed. Many of those same 60s revolutionaries are anxious to reverse the birth-dearth, and they are trying to apply technology to undo the baby-busting effects of what they wrought. The social conservatives could simply say to these folks, "See, we told you so! Children are good!" But instead, the anti-cloner/pro-lifers seem determined to keep fighting, even against ex-revolutionaries who now want to come over to the pro-natalist side. The main distinction is that the pro-natalists want to use technology to make all children healthier.

Indeed, thanks to new technology, in spite of the social conservatives, new babies are busting out all over. The first offspring of the New Year in the Washington DC area was born to a lesbian couple, Helen Rubin and Joanna Bare; Rubin conceived through artificial insemination. Is this bad? The Washington Post didn't think so; it ran a sympathetic story on its front page. Yeah sure, some might say, that's the liberal Post, at it again. But interestingly, the conservative-tilting Washington Times carried the story on its front page, too, under the friendly headline, "Lesbian couple welcome daughter." The Times article approvingly quoted proud grandfather Howard Rubin saying, "This child is going to have a traditional family... traditional grandparents on both sides, traditional aunts and uncles." Is this so bad?

If pro-lifers and cultural conservatives denounce gay parenthood, as many of them do, then that will be just one more stick of evidence piling up to prove that pro-lifers aren't so pro-life as "pro-tradition." That is, if they pick and choose the reproductive techniques according to their own standard-in which certain kinds of parenting are deemed acceptable, other kinds not acceptable-then they will further demonstrate that their movement is a particularistic and reactionary critique of modernity, and not representative of an overall seamless commitment to "life." Indeed, some day the pro-lifers might be more usefully lumped in with others who oppose technological innovation, such as those who support anesthesia-free "natural childbirth." In fact, today's pro-lifers might find themselves better called "pro-natural," and find their ultimate alliance in league with the Amish, organic farmers, and many environmentalists.

But in the meantime, as the happy story of Helen Rubin and Joanna Bare attests, more Americans on the right, as well as the left, are coming to accept the reality that new ways of bringing children into the world are upon us. Which in turn might explain why experts see no sure outcome for anti-cloning efforts in the 108th Congress. The front-page headline in the December 26 Washington Post summed up the standoff: "An Uncertain Year for Cloning Laws: Ban on Embryo Research Seen as Unlikely."

Yes, the American people are worried about cloning. But maybe not so worried that they want the politicians to block the next evolution in medical science, an evolution that has made lives richer and better-and maybe, soon, more abundant.

TCS Daily Archives