May 12, 2002


The great cloning debate : A guide to a battlefield that crosses parties, faiths and ideologies (The Economist, May 9th 2002)
There are five basic arguments to ban it.

The most basic of all is that it involves killing a potential human being. [...]

The other arguments begin with the slippery slope. Legal therapeutic cloning, argue some critics, would produce stockpiles of cloned embryos for research. Once that happens, it will be virtually impossible to control how the embryos are used. That would make it impossible to enforce a ban on baby cloning. [...]

Other critics cite the precautionary principle. In the realm of genetics, it is far better to be safe than sorry. Senator Landrieu, a supporter of abortion choice, argues that cloning is too unreliable. In animal experiments, fewer than 5% of cloned, implanted embryos produce a healthy birth. Until it improves, that success rate necessitates a ban. Ms Landrieu does not want to ban cloning research in order to limit medical knowledge. Rather, she says, “there are safer, less worrisome means to the same end”—notably stem-cell research. She denies her bill is anti-research.

By contrast, people like Leon Kass, the chairman of the president's advisory council on bioethics, object to cloning precisely because of the medical advances it implies. They see cloning as a route towards a Brave New World of human genetic engineering. They object, in Dr Kass's words, to “the alteration...enhancement [and] wholesale redesign” of human nature itself. They paint scary pictures of society growing humans for spare body parts or as custom-designed children.

This “wisdom of repugnance”, as Dr Kass likes to see it, has been embraced by both conservatives and liberals. From the right, Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, worries that government oversight of the health-care system is likely to grow, so human cloning must be banned now to prevent state-mandated eugenics in the future. From a more liberal standpoint, Mr Fukuyama worries about equality if inequality is designed into people's genes. If an ordinary child and a genetically enhanced one are competing for the same liver transplant, who gets it?

The last argument, specific to cloning, is the spectre of a vast embryo industry. Therapeutic cloning requires large numbers of eggs. On one estimate, you might need eggs from 80m women just to treat American diabetics alone. So cloning, argues Charles Krauthammer, a columnist and psychiatrist, “means the routinisation, the commercialisation, the commodification of the human embyro.” This fear resonates not just with the Christian right but also with the feminist left, which worries that women will be sucked into the embyro business unwillingly.

I guess that's five, but it glides past the central point of Mr. Fukuyama's book, Our Posthuman Future, which is the best thing yet written on bioengineering. He argues that cloning and related attempts to use our emerging knowledge of genetics and other fields of biology in order to fundamentally change our physical beings must inevitably have some effect on human nature too. And since liberal capitalist protestant democracy is a finely nuanced response to our given nature, arrived at only after millennia of trial and bloody error, perhaps we should proceed slowly, lest in altering our natures we lose our system of government.

The power of this argument rests on the fact that it does not depend on morality and assumes that clonophiles will achieve all of their dreams. For those on the Left who don't much believe in freedom, it raises few stumbling blocks, but for libertarians, who have been the other vocal advocates of unfettered cloning, it raises the specter of their scientific aspirations destroying their political aspirations. It appears they must choose between either longer life or greater freedom. Their silence in response to this argument has been deafening.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 12, 2002 9:53 AM
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