A Reply to Rifkin

Article excerpt

In his essay, "Why I Oppose Human Cloning," Jeremy Rifkin proposes that his view is widely shared within the progressive community: "many of us in the progressive Left are equally opposed to both therapeutic and full birth cloning.... Earlier this year, sixty-seven leading progressives lent their support to legislation that would outlaw therapeutic and full birth cloning. The signatories of the anti-cloning petition included many of the best-known intellectuals and activists in left circles today." In fact, the petition came from Mr. Rifkin himself (the document became known as "the Rifkin petition"), and two of the petition's signers, Stanley Aronowtiz and Quentin Young, have since withdrawn their support from the petition.

Some of Jeremy Rifkin's criticisms of reproductive cloning are well taken; I do not have the space here to discuss his argument in detail. But his campaign against therapeutic cloning (known by scientists as Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, or SCNT, which is explained below) is not equally justified.

In the domain of biomedicine, progressives can readily identify with Rifkin's opposition to "efforts to reduce human life and its various parts and processes to the status of mere research tools, manufactured products, and utilities." But despite his assertions to the contrary, few among us can see the link he assumes between the research cloning of embryonic stems cells for therapeutic purposes and the larger doomsday scenario that he lays out. The stem cell issue-which is receiving a lot of attention from the national media-has provided Rifkin with a wedge for introducing his anti-biotechnology agenda to a wide audience at the cost of neglecting the specific intentions and prospects of scientists working with embryonic stem cells to better understand disease processes and to develop new therapies based on that understanding.

In its campaign to discredit embryonic stem cell research, the religious right has blurred the differences between therapeutic and reproductive cloning, creating in the popular imagination nightmare visions of cloned babies born into brave new worlds (evoked as well in popular entertainment like the movie Attack of the Clones). But therapeutic cloning provides scant supplies for these science fiction scenarios. This research is already subject to federal regulation, does not involve significant health risks to cell donors, does not alter existing genomes, and takes place in a laboratory setting with a handful of embryonic stem cells that will not be implanted in a womb.

Our task as progressives should be to expose the way that anti-abortion spokespersons twist the facts about this kind of research. Instead, Rifkin has allied himself with these very forces. He rightly points out that biomedical research needs careful ethical evaluation. And in his book The Biotech Century, he elaborated a fairly reasonable dialectical approach to such research, recognizing its enormous potential for good, while pointing out also the dangers. But now his blanket opposition to the cloning of human embryos abandons that balance in favor of dubious assumptions and misleading arguments. Banning therapeutic cloning would obstruct research paths that could lead to effective remedies for major illnesses such as childhood leukemia, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease.

Rifkin argues that "By concentrating research almost exclusively on magic bullets in the form of gene replacements, the medical community forecloses the less invasive option of prevention...." This is erroneous on two counts. First, it overlooks what may be the most valuable result of research cloning: A better understanding of disease processes. Researchers can take a diseased cell from an adult (the disease in question could be cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, or another disease in which genetic inheritance or mutation plays a role) and use embryonic cloning to create a stem cell line from it. …

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