An impressive list of environmental groups and individuals, spiced with feminists and various professional and semi-pro manifesto signers, has endorsed a campaign led by Friends of the Earth for new laws against human cloning. The campaign opposes both sorts of cloning: not just “reproductive” cloning aimed at producing fully-formed human beings, but also “therapeutic” cloning of embryos for use in medical research and treatment.
The opposition to therapeutic cloning among religious conservatives is easy to understand and even easy to respect, in a way. They believe that a microscopic clump of a few dozen cells, as self-aware as a block of wood, has the same human worth and rights as you or me. If that’s true, then cloning embryos to extract stem cells would be just like breeding children in order to harvest their organs and body parts. And therefore better to let your mother suffer or die from a potentially curable disease than to create and destroy that clump. A gruesome but courageous position. And if you buy the initial premise, it all makes sense.
By contrast, most of the anti-cloning liberals and enviros do not believe in human rights for embryos. So, why do they want your mother to suffer needlessly? It is because of their “deep regard for the natural world” and “respect for nature” and “the interdependence of humans and our natural world” and the “precautionary principle” of “regard for the consequences of our actions” and so on. The only argument these folks offer against therapeutic cloning—beyond poetical cliches and vague luddism—is the slippery slope: Therapeutic cloning may lead to the other kind which may lead to genetic manipulation of the human race.
And of course it may. It’s not clear to me why this prospect crosses some dreaded line between nature and artifice any more than earlier reproductive technology, from birth control to in vitro fertilization, which once got the same uh-oh-don’t-go-there treatment. But in any event, even a cloned human being born and raised through adulthood could not pass on any artificial genetic traits without scientific breakthroughs that are yet to happen.
In service of these unspecific fears, we would be denying ourselves the fruits of scientific breakthroughs that have already occurred or are much more imminent. Sure, the promise of embryonic stem cells may be oversold; and sure, there are other promising avenues of medical advance. But none of that makes shutting off the most promising avenue cost-free. Real human beings will pay the cost in wrecked or shortened lives.
Friends of the Earth and friends cannot avoid moral responsibility for wrecking people’s lives, as they attempt to do, by calling for a “moratorium” on therapeutic cloning rather than an outright ban. This is a classic dodge, offering politicians a way to say “maybe” to a tough yes-or-no question. But what’s the point? Does anyone suppose that moral philosophers—beavering away while the medical researchers are forced to sit on their hands—will come up with some dazzling new insight about how to make all sides happy? Or that it makes no difference to millions of real people if a crucial medical breakthrough comes in 2005 or 2015?
Not to be coy, it makes a big difference to me. I have Parkinson’s disease, for which stem-cell research holds extraordinary and imminent promise. Some might say this is a conflict of interest and I therefore shouldn’t write about this topic. Ordinarily, of course, like every professional opinion-peddler, I approach all issues from a perspective of utter Olympian detachment. It seems more like a bizarre convention than an ethical mandate that a person’s views on a subject should be considered less interesting if his life is at stake. But anyone who does feel that way is hereby forewarned.
Of course the goal of much political opinion writing—on national security, on the economy, on the environment, among other topics—is to convince the reader that everyone’s life is at stake, or close to it. Presumably that includes the author’s own. If you shouldn’t write about topics where your own life is at stake in the outcome, no one should write about the war on terrorism. And the doomy opinions of environmentalists should only be published if they are incorrect. (Why? Because if the author is correct in saying that, say, global warming will melt the polar ice caps and drown us all, her life is at stake and therefore she has a conflict of interest.)
But it ought to take more than semi-coherent blather about some “precautionary principle” to stop a potential miracle in its tracks. On balance, after weighing the arguments on both sides, I think I’d just as soon not give my life for alliteration.