TCS Daily

The Kass Council's Ex-Friends

By Ramesh Ponnuru - April 20, 2004 12:00 AM

We're used to criticism of the President's Council on Bioethics - aka the Kass council after its Chairman Leon Kass -- from liberals and libertarians. Its most recent proposals regarding embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning have it taking fire again. This time, however, it's the council's usual allies, social conservatives, who are upset.

The social Right is upset by two proposals. First, the council has asked Congress to set an age limit to research on human embryos. It would be illegal to conduct research that destroys embryos above, say, the fourteen-day mark. Second, the council suggests that Congress prohibit the cloning of a human embryo with the intention of implanting it in a woman's womb.

These recommendations were unanimous. But the members of the council who support research on human embryos, including cloned human embryos, put out their spin early in a New York Times story. In a statement accompanying the council's recommendations, the pro-embryo research members argued that these suggestions pointed the way toward victory for their side. The controversy over federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research could be settled by adopting a ten-day or fourteen-day guideline. The prohibition on cloning with an intent to implant, meanwhile, suggested a settlement of the cloning issue that would allow research to go forward.

Social conservatives, no doubt partly influenced by their opponents' claims of victory, came out against the council's recommendations. First the Catholic bishops' conference and then Focus on the Family announced their opposition. The age-limit proposal was held to compromise the moral principle that no human beings, however young and small and whether produced through in vitro fertilization or cloning, should be destroyed in research. They also argued that a ban on cloning an embryo with the intent to implant it would be impossible to enforce.

In my view, the social conservatives are making a mistake. I write this even though I agree with them on what the ideal policy should be. The goal to which we should be striving is the full recognition by the law of the principle they have articulated: legal protection for all human beings, including embryonic ones. The age limit should therefore be zero, and it should not be permissible to clone human embryos with the intent of doing research on them.

But the council's recommendations would be major improvements on the status quo. There is no age limit on embryo research as it stands. And while the ban on cloning with an intent to implant would indeed be unenforceable against rogue scientists, it would also prevent the formation in America of industries devoted to producing babies through cloning.

A ban on researchers' destroying fifteen-day-old embryos does not imply approval of their destroying one-day-old embryos any more than a ban on partial-birth abortion implies approval of other types of abortion. Yet both Focus on the Family and the Catholic bishops have fought for bans on partial-birth abortion.

Are there prudential reasons for not adopting an incremental approach to reaching their goals here? If there were a good chance that Congress might ban embryo research from day one, social conservatives might well decide not to undercut that better ban by letting a weaker one go forward. But that situation is entirely hypothetical. Before the council made its suggestions, nobody was talking about imposing any kind of regulation on privately-financed research. A prudential objection to this Kass council proposal presupposes the existence of a superior alternative strategy. No such strategy has been put forward.

The political context for the cloning proposal is a bit more complicated. There is a bill before Congress to ban all forms of human cloning, and it has twice passed the House. It is stalled, however, in the Senate. There is also a bill that would allow research cloning but make it illegal to implant the cloned embryo in the womb. Social conservatives say that this bill is unacceptable because it would effectively mandate the destruction of the embryos. They call it "the clone-and-kill bill."

The council's recommendation avoids the homicidal mandate by making the illegality depend on the conjunction of an act of cloning and a particular intent. Does it nonetheless undercut the effort to pass a broader ban?

I think not. The argument that it would undercut that effort rests on the notion that there are congressmen who want only to stop the development of cloned babies, but are willing to vote for a broader ban on all cloning as a way of effecting that goal. But the broader ban passed the House largely on the strength of the pro-life principle that cloning embryos for the purpose of research that destroys them is unjust. That argument would still be available to pro-lifers if the Kass council's recommendation were passed. For that matter, they would still be able to argue that the ban they favor would be much more effective in preventing the production of cloned babies than the enactment of that recommendation alone.

Focus on the Family declared that the Kass proposal for an age limit was "morally reprehensible." (It also said that the council "aims but misses the mark" and had made a "welcome attempt" to deal with reproductive issues. The moral, I guess, is that Focus on the Family does not use words carefully.) I would not say that Focus on the Family's position is reprehensible. Its effects may well be.

Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor at National Review. He recently wrote for TCS about membership changes at the Kass council.


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