April 11, 2002


Where Does the Progressive Community Stand on the Issue of Embryonic Stem Cell Research? : Statement Opposing the Criminalization of Therapeutic Cloning
We are progressives who believe that biotechnology should be placed in the service of humane ends. Therefore we oppose legislation currently being considered in the U.S. Congress that would criminalize research that clones human embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes. The laudable aim of this research is to develop new remedies for severe childhood and adult illnesses that afflict millions of people.

On its face this petition seems like a carefully reasoned bit of advocacy for only the most limited and relatively noncontroversial type of cloning. In fact, its effect is to allow all forms of cloning, even those that some signatories would find repulsive, even evil.

Surely that is not the intent of the drafters or signers of the petition, but later on the same page they implicitly acknowledge it to be the case. In response to the concern that their action will allow nearly unfettered cloning, they write :

Will therapeutic cloning inevitably lead us onto a slippery slope to headless full term clones?

No. Our model for regulatory oversight should be the English Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, which limits any experimentation with embryos, to the first 14 days. It is at 14 days that an embryo first begins to develop the primitive streak, the first indication of a nervous system. It is also at 14 days that, in all but the most extreme cases of conjoined twins, an embryo loses the ability to split into two and become twins. The oversight mandated by the English Act has prevented any 'slippery slope' in the United Kingdom and there is no reason to assume that a similar approach would not work as well in this country.

Well, okay, perhaps where there is a complex regulatory scheme already in place a ban would be unnecessary. But we do not currently have such regulations. We have not even determined yet whether a clone would be a human being or mere property. The term "therapeutic cloning" has no legal meaning. There is nothing to stop someone from simply calling every process they decide to attempt a "therapy" and thereby circumventing the limitations that even the petitioners seem to support.

A complete ban, even if it affects some processes that we'll later allow, seems to be the only way to avoid the truly horrific practices that nearly everyone opposes (the headless clone or, more problematic, the clone with brain function interrupted so that it never becomes conscious). The ban will serve as a pause while we, as a society, debate how far we're willing to let science and industry go and while Congress drafts the corresponding legislation. Of course, particularly with the two houses divided between the two parties, the legislative process is likely to take quite awhile. So be it. We can ban too much in order to be sure that we ban evil or we can allow evil in trying to allow the ethical, but the choice is that stark.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2002 9:20 AM
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