IN LATE JANUARY, THE NEW YORK Times ran an influential story with the headline "Some for Abortion Rights Lean Right in Cloning Fight." Certain members of the "political left," Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg revealed, had united with religious conservatives to support a ban on not only human reproductive cloning--that is, on cloning used to create new beings--but also on what is known as "therapeutic cloning," the cloning of human embryos for research purposes.
Republicans and Democrats alike want to prevent the birth of cloned babies. But research into embryo cloning may hold tremendous health benefits for those suffering from degenerative diseases like Parkinson's or diabetes. That's why the Democratic legislation pending in the Senate--a bill co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts--would ban only reproductive cloning. And that's why Stolberg's story, claiming that left and right had joined forces to oppose all cloning, was so surprising.
Stolberg's contention was based on her observation that a collection of prominent left thinkers had signed a statement, circulated by media-savvy technophobe Jeremy Rifkin, that called for outlawing all embryo cloning for research purposes just like the Republican alternative to Feinstein-Kennedy--a bill sponsored by anti-abortionist Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. In truth, however, left-liberal support for the Rifkin statement is rather less than it seemed. Of the five ostensibly left-leaning individuals besides Rifkin that the Times centrally cited, one (Emory University historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese) actually voted for Bush; two (Our Bodies, Ourselves co-author Judy Norsigian and New York University sociologist Todd Gitlin) have since endorsed a statement that deliberately avoids a Brownback-style ban; one (University of Maryland political scientist Benjamin Barber) can't even remember signing Rifkin's petition in the first place; and one is the always iconoclastic Norman Mailer.
And that's just the beginning of confusion over this petition. Though Rifkin's 68-name list does include some true-believing environmentalists and feminists who continue to make common cause with Brownback, a number of its more influential signatories have begun to back frantically away from the statement. Many are stunned to discover they had put their name put to a petition arguing for the criminalization of medical research. City University of New York sociologist Stanley Aronowitz can't remember signing the petition but says that if he did, it was because "I get 100 e-mails a day and I acted too hastily." Tikkun editor Michael Lerner, who has since switched petitions along with Norsigian and Gitlin, admitted "I made an error in endorsing beyond what I actually believed." Quentin Young, former president of the American Public Health Association, has now signed a petition to defend research cloning. (The Rifkin statement, he said, "was kind of subtle and I misread it.") And then there's Howard Zinn. In a phone interview, the famously left-wing author of A People's History of the United States asked to have the difference between stem cells and cloned embryos explained to him. Then he admitted, "I think you should be responsible for what you sign, and that's why I regret signing [the Rifkin petition]. Because I didn't really know the issues."
DARTMOUTH'S RONALD GREEN, author of The Human Embryo Research Debates, and R. Alta Charo, a five-year member of former President Bill Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, are liberal bioethicists who strongly support embattled embryo cloning research. They are furious at Lerner, Young, Zinn, and company. "When you enter into a major national debate and you don't think about what you're doing, I think that's ethically irresponsible," Green fumed. Added Charo, "I think it was a very poor showing for the leading academics of the left. …