April 25, 2002


Crossing Lines : A Secular Argument Against Research Cloning (Charles Krauthammer, 04.22.02, New Republic)
The Holy Grail of modern biology is regenerative medicine. If we can figure out how to make a specialized adult cell dedifferentiate--unspecialize, i.e., revert way back to the embryonic stage, perhaps even to the original zygotic stage--and then grow it like an embryo under controlled circumstances, we could reproduce for you every kind of tissue or organ you might need. We could create a storehouse of repair parts for your body. And, if we let that dedifferentiated cell develop completely in a woman's uterus, we will have created a copy of you, your clone.

That is the promise and the menace of cloning. It has already been done in sheep, mice, goats, pigs, cows, and now cats and rabbits (though cloning rabbits seems an exercise in biological redundancy). There is no reason in principle why it cannot be done in humans. The question is: Should it be done?

Notice that the cloning question is really two questions: (1) May we grow that dedifferentiated cell all the way into a cloned baby, a copy of you? That is called reproductive cloning. And (2) may we grow that dedifferentiated cell just into the embryonic stage and then mine it for parts, such as stem cells? That is called research cloning.

Reproductive cloning is universally abhorred. In July 2001 the House of Representatives, a fairly good representative of the American people, took up the issue and not a single member defended reproductive cloning. Research cloning, however, is the hard one. Some members were prepared to permit the cloning of the human embryo in order to study and use its component parts, with the proviso that the embryo be destroyed before it grows into a fetus or child. They were a minority, however. Their amendment banning baby-making but permitting research cloning was defeated by 76 votes. On July 31, 2001, a bill outlawing all cloning passed the House decisively.

Within weeks, perhaps days, the Senate will vote on essentially the same alternatives. On this vote will hinge the course of the genetic revolution at whose threshold we now stand.

Mr. Krauthammer goes on in this essay to try to craft a purely secular but still moral argument against cloning, but inevitably fails. The failure is inevitable because as philosophers have repeatedly found (see for example Francis Fukuyama's recent Our Posthuman Future), to their great dismay, once God is removed from the equation there is no sound footing for morality.

This is the case, in the first instance, because if Man is not created by, and in the image of, a Supreme Being there is no basis for granting each individual the kind of human dignity from which a moral system must proceed. Secondly, with no such dignity and intrinsic worth attached to each being and deprived of divine commandments to govern behavior, morality becomes completely relative, with no coherent reason for choosing between the moral reasoning of a Manson girl or a Mother Teresa. In these circumstances there really is no morality as such, there is only legality--that which 51% of us think should not be done becomes illegal, all else s permissible. This is why modern society is so legalistic and thoroughly regulated by government. As God has passed from the scene, taking with Him Judeo-Christian morality, it has been necessary to replace Him with tight-knit skein of rules covering nearly every facet of human behavior. (It is no coincidence that America is both the most religious and the freest of the Western nations--to the extent that we've retained some remnants of belief we've alleviated the need for quite as much government control as other developed nations groan under).

Mr. Krauthammer is correct in his final warning :

Creating a human embryo just so it can be used and then destroyed undermines the very foundation of the moral prudence that informs the entire enterprise of genetic research: the idea that, while a human embryo may not be a person, it is not nothing. Because if it is nothing, then everything is permitted. And if everything is permitted, then there are no fences, no safeguards, no bottom.

But his argument does nothing to help us avoid this fate, which is where secular reasoning is leading us. For the point is that under a secular regime we are things and the only bottom is those temporary safeguards that 51% of us agree on. The tyranny of the majority, which we've long recognized as the great threat to our political freedoms in a democracy, gets extended to even the "moral" realm.

This is the line we're dancing along right now--in areas like abortion, euthanasia, cloning, genetic manipulation, etc., where humans are treated as things to be disposed of as we will--and having crossed it there seems little likelihood we'll be able to reverse our course.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 25, 2002 3:34 PM
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