The Magazine

Against Human Cloning

May 7, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 32 • By J. BOTTUM
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Last week, the Brownback-Weldon bill to prohibit human cloning was introduced on Capitol Hill. And the arguments against it are . . . well, as it turns out, there really aren't many arguments against a ban on manufacturing human beings like gingerbread men from a cookie cutter.

It's true, of course, that some propositions resembling arguments for cloning have been advanced in recent years. But under scrutiny, these ostensible arguments quickly dissolve into a fog of vague, unfocused feelings about science, sex, and the human condition.

Take, for example, the claim that to prohibit cloning would be to prevent a grief-stricken mother and father from replacing their dead daughter with a new, genetically identical daughter who will somehow erase the loss of their first daughter. You don't have to delve very far into philosophical questions of identity and existence to realize that the notion is so confused and self-contradictory, it won't even bear the weight of its own expression. But the point of invoking those grieving parents is not to present an argument. The point is to express a feeling: Death ought not to sting, the grave should not have the victory, the ones we love must come back to life. And so cloning enthusiasts look to science -- as to a god -- to wipe away our tears, to assuage the eternal pity, and to console human grief.

Or take, for another example, the claim that a ban on human cloning would be a blow against Roe v. Wade. Some antiabortion activists do make this argument. They say everything bad begins with a disrespect for human life: The unfettered right to abortion grants us a Promethean power of life and death over our unborn offspring that naturally leads to practices like cloning. Thus, the argument goes, we can succeed in banning cloning only by winning -- today -- the battle over abortion. Many supporters of cloning actually make the same argument, although they run it in reverse to frighten off liberal Democrats: A ban on cloning, they warn, would mean the loss of "a woman's right to choose"; America can thus guarantee the full abortion license only by allowing cloning to proceed unhindered.

Our fellow pro-lifers may well be right that there is an underlying logic linking these issues. But the truth is -- and this is the vital political point -- we can ban cloning without touching Roe v. Wade. Indeed, the debate over cloning shouldn't be forced back into the well-worn grooves of the abortion debate. The issue of cloning offers the possibility of some interesting realignments in American politics. This is an issue, after all, on which radical environmentalists and religious evangelicals find themselves in agreement -- which would be impossible if the right-to-choose equals right-to-clone argument were definitive. But, then, this was never meant to be a genuine argument. It is meant instead to express a feeling -- a feeling that radical individualism, sexual liberation, and modern science have all somehow combined to bring us to this point, and to reject any piece of it now, even the reproduction of human beings by cloning, is to return to the Dark Ages.

And take, for a final example, the claim that a law against cloning human beings will make us forfeit potential advances in medicine. Who could be opposed to experiments that might lead to a cure for cancer, a fully compatible liver for transplanting, a genetically engineered solution to diabetes? But examined more closely, the hoped-for medical advances turn out to be merely examples of things that researchers promise they will try to find, if only we leave them alone to play with human cloning as much as they like.

The manipulation of stem cells obtained from cloned embryos is asserted to be necessary for the desired medical breakthroughs. And the use of these putative therapeutic miracles in pro-cloning arguments seems to have survived unscathed the recent evidence that it is possible to obtain the required stem cells not from embryos but from adults' blood, bone marrow, brain tissue, and even fat cells. It has survived unscathed, for that matter, the disastrous initial results of stem-cell treatment (in which the cells, derived from embryos, went wild and began producing not merely brain tissue but other tissue as well when introduced into the brains of some of their new hosts).