The intense media coverage of the latest version of "human cloning" that began in mid-October with a front-page story in the New York Times revealed more than the public's deep fascination with the prospect of endless human replicas. It also served as a reminder that for the past decade no official, broad-based advisory bioethics body has operated in the United States.
The divergence of views among the leading figures in the field--who could not even agree on the nature of the issue at hand, much less how it should be settled--must have been music to the ears of ethical pluralists, to say nothing of those who doubt the existence of any such thing as expertise in bioethics. Some commentators found nothing disturbing in the experiment in question, in which researchers at George Washington University succeeded in creating genetically identical embryos (in effect, unborn twins) by splitting apart the still undifferentiated cells of an early embryo and allowing each copy to proceed with cellular division and development. Other commentators regarded this research as troubling inherently or as it might be applied or because it represented a step toward the ultimate narcissism, creating a clone from the cells of existing (post-embryonic) persons.
The week before the twinning experiment was reported, the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources held a hearing, "Biomedical Ethics and U.S. Public Policy," which is also the name of a just-released report by the Office of Technology Assessment. Another impetus for the hearing was S. 1042, introduced by Senator Mark Hatfield in May. This bill would require the appointment of a standing Ethics Advisory Board within the Department of Health and Human Services. That department's own regulations on human research require the existence of a board to review protocols involving certain especially sensitive studies, such as research involving embryos and fetuses. Yet no such board has existed since 1980-an absence that has only reinforced the moratoria imposed by Congress on federal support for studies involving in vitro fertilization.
The ethics advisory board envisioned by Sen. Hatfield would have broader powers and would be appointed one-third by the President and two-thirds by Congress, rather than by the secretary of health and human services. Although the 14 October hearing left the impression that even Sen. Hatfield does not think S. 1042 will be adopted in its current form, frustration with the absence of any means within the federal government for ongoing evaluation of general bioethical issues makes it likely that some law on this subject will emerge from the 103rd Congress.
Cloning as the Trigger
For all its sci-fi aura, it is not surprising that the cloning experiment performed by Robert Stillman and Jerry Hall at George Washington University highlighted the fact that the nation has no well-established or generally agreed-upon standards on this topic. At the heart of this bioethical lacuna lies abortion, of course. Although legitimately within the realm of bioethics, this topic is more typically addressed in ideological and even political terms by adversaries in the bitter struggle between "right-to-life" and "pro-choice." A field cast in terms of conflicting "rights," which has been made if anything more contentious by the Supreme Court's recent abortion decisions, does not lend itself to cool discussions of the effects upon human flourishing that various alterations in human reproduction might produce.
The latest cloning controversy illustrates this phenomenon. What problems might be thought to arise from cloning embryos? First come the objections that this process, like other changes in reproduction, is unnatural or amounts to playing God. Yet beyond the shock that comes with any new medical procedure, cloning is no different from the rest of medicine in its interference with natural processes. Society seems by now to have accepted other manipulations of human gametes and embryos carried out to aid people in overcoming infertility. …