The Magazine

Cloning, Stem Cells, and Beyond

Last week's House debate is just the beginning.

Aug 13, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 45 • By ERIC COHEN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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LAST WEEK’S VOTE in the House to ban human cloning is something to celebrate. It may even be something momentous. The House passed, by 265 to 162, a bill sponsored by representative Dave Weldon of Florida that would ban the creation of all human clones. It rejected an alternative sponsored by Pennsylvania representative James Greenwood, and backed by the biotech lobby, that would have allowed the creation of cloned human embryos to be used for medical research and then destroyed.

The Greenwood forces had corporate money and much of enlightened opinion behind them. They over-promised, misled, and demagogued, claiming, for example, that cloned-embryo research could one day "end human suffering," that cloned embryos "are not really embryos at all," and that a vote against such research is a "sentence of death for millions of Americans."

But the majority of the House—a larger majority than expected—refused to listen. They chose instead to halt (or try to halt) what Charles Krauthammer has described as "the most ghoulish and dangerous enterprise in modern scientific history: the creation of nascent cloned human life for the sole purpose of its exploitation and destruction." They defied the wishes of the medical research establishment, the biotech industry, and the health-at-any-cost humanitarians. They drew a bright moral line, which even the most well-meaning scientists would not be permitted to cross.

Whether this line will hold in the long run—and even whether the Senate will pass a similar cloning ban—is an open question. For while last week’s House vote struck a blow against a Brave New World, it represents only the first public engagement in what will surely be a prolonged struggle, not just over cloning and stem cells, but over whether and how to regulate, control, and shape the genetic revolution that is upon us.

One lesson of last week’s debate is that everyone claims to be horrified by the prospect of live human clones. Even the Greenwood bill ostensibly banned reproductive cloning. This suggests a broad willingness to accept some moral limitations, enforced in law, on scientific "progress." It suggests we still believe there are great and obvious evils that no amount of utilitarian or libertarian reasoning can justify, and which we must regulate, forbid, and criminalize in the public interest.

But we have also learned something else: Over one-third of the House of Representatives believes that corporations and researchers—like Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts, which has already begun a research cloning project—should be left alone in the hope that cloned-embryo farms will one day prove a useful source of embryonic stem cells. And we know that majorities in both the House and Senate support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, at least when the embryos are "leftovers" from in vitro fertilization clinics. Nor have we seen any urgent effort to ban the creation of embryos by private organizations—like the Jones Institute in Norfolk, Virginia, discussed in these pages two weeks ago—that pay women to help produce embryos for research and destruction.

And despite all the publicity surrounding the president’s pending decision on embryonic stem cells, it is worth noting that his decision will be a limited one, touching only on the question of federal funding of research on stem cell lines derived from spare in vitro embryos. Even if the president maintains the current ban on funding, Congress will challenge him with a bill of its own—and may well try to broaden the permissible uses of federal funds. And whatever the president and Congress decide about federal funding, this research will presumably proceed apace in the private sector—and not just on leftover in vitro embryos but on embryos created solely for research and destruction.

All of this means that last week’s cloning debate in the House and President Bush’s imminent stem cell decision are just the tip of the iceberg. The dilemmas over cloning and stem cells will inevitably force a much larger debate about where the modern technological project is heading: Is it moral to harvest potential lives to help existing ones? How about improving potential life through genetic engineering? Isn’t the question of how stem cells may be used as morally troubling as the question of how they have been obtained? How reasonable is it, anyway, to try to end all disease and suffering? Do we have the wisdom and the will to preserve a distinction between medical therapy and eugenic enhancement? A line between a better human world and a new inhuman one?