Attack of the Anti-Cloners

By Caplan, Arthur L. | The Nation, June 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Attack of the Anti-Cloners


Caplan, Arthur L., The Nation


In the past two months I have talked with many people who have a keen interest in whether the Senate will decide to ban therapeutic cloning. At a conference at a Philadelphia hospital, a large number of people, their bodies racked with tremors from Parkinson's disease, gathered to hear me speak about the ethics of stem cell research. A few weeks earlier I had spoken to another group, many of whom were breathing with the assistance of oxygen tanks because they have a genetic disease, Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, that destroys their lungs and livers. Earlier still I met with a group of parents whose children are paralyzed as a result of spinal cord injuries.

At each meeting I told the audience there was a good chance that the government would criminalize research that might find answers to their ailments if it required using cloned human embryos, on the grounds that research using such embryos is unethical. The audience members were incredulous. And well they should have been. A bizarre alliance of antiabortion religious zealots and technophobic neoconservatives along with a smattering of scientifically befuddled antibiotech progressives is pushing hard to insure that the Senate accords more moral concern to cloned embryos in dishes than it does to kids who can't walk and grandmothers who can't hold a fork or breathe.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that George W. Bush and the House of Representatives have already taken the position that any research requiring the destruction of an embryo, cloned or otherwise, is wrong. This view derives from the belief, held by many in the Republican camp, that personhood begins at conception, that embryos are people and that killing them to help other people is simply wrong. Although this view about the moral status of embryos does not square with what is known about them--science has shown that embryos require more than genes in order to develop, that not all embryos have the capacity to become a person and that not all conception begins a life--it at least has the virtue of moral clarity.

But aside from those who see embryos as tiny people, such clarity of moral vision is absent among cloning opponents. Consider the views of Leon Kass, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and Francis Fukuyama. Each says he opposes research involving the cloning of human embryos. Each has been pushing furiously in the media and in policy circles to make the case that nothing could be more morally heinous than harvesting stem cells from such embryos. And each says that his repugnance at the idea of cloning research has nothing to do with a religiously based view of what an embryo is.

The core of the case against cloning for cures is that it involves the creation, to quote the latest in a landslide of moral fulminations from Krauthammer, "of a human embryo for the sole purpose of using it for its parts...it will sanction the creation of an entire industry of embryo manufacture whose explicit purpose is...dismemberment for research." Sounds like a very grim business indeed--and some progressives, notably Jeremy Rifkin and Norman Mailer, have sounded a similar alarm as they have joined the anticloning crusade.

From the secular viewpoint, which Krauthammer and like-minded cloning opponents claim to hold, there is no evidence for the position that embryonic clones are persons or even potential persons. As a simple fact of science, embryos that reside in dishes are going nowhere. The potential to become anything requires a suitable environment. Talk of "dismemberment," which implicitly confers moral status on embryos, betrays the sort of faith-based thinking that Krauthammer says he wants to eschew. Equally ill-informed is the notion that equivalent medical benefits can be derived from research on adult stem cells; cloned embryonic stem cells have unique properties that cannot be duplicated.

The idea that women could be transformed into commercial egg farms also troubles Krauthammer, as well as some feminists and the Christian Medical Association.

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