The Magazine

The Biotech Project

Mar 11, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 25 • By J. BOTTUM, FOR THE EDITORS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

RECENT WEEKS have seen news of biotech advances all along the front: cloned cats, artificial wombs, nascent human-animal hybrids, genetic selection of embryos for implantation, fetal-tissue manipulation--and on, and on, nearly every day bringing some news item about the technology that is redefining what it means to be human.

The question is, do we want this redefinition? Like a giant jigsaw puzzle as each piece is put in place, the picture of the brave new world of eugenic biotechnology is coming clear, and it is an ugly and frightening picture of designed descendants, commodified body parts, manipulated babies, and life itself twisted to little more than the attempt to prove that it is possible to twist life.

The time to stop this is now, and the place to stop it is human cloning. We must send a message that some things we will not do, even though we can. We must draw a line and say that we do not simply acquiesce in the biotechnologists' willful and unthinking desire to fool with the basic stuff of life.

In the next two months, the Senate will debate the question of cloning, with three proposals now in play: the Brownback-Landrieu bill to ban all cloning (echoing the bill already passed by the House of Representatives), and the Feinstein-Kennedy and Harkin-Specter bills, both of which allow scientists to perform so-called "therapeutic" cloning, while prohibiting the bringing of those clones to birth in "reproductive" cloning.

The Weekly Standard has editorialized before about the moral fecklessness of human cloning. The attempt to allow cloned embryos and then to ban the birth at which they naturally aim is a bizarre and unworkable compromise. How exactly could we enforce it without the courts ordering women to have abortions? How could we prosecute violators without an unattainable knowledge of a scientist's intention in creating a clone? And how could we call the compromise ethical when it would establish in law a class of embryos that it is a crime not to destroy, not to treat as disposable tissue? The attempt to ban only reproductive cloning will prove simply an invitation for scientists to get their techniques right until the pressure to bring one of those clones to birth becomes overwhelming. In truth, the only way to ban reproductive human cloning is by banning all human cloning, and the only bill now before the Senate that will do that is the Brownback-Landrieu bill.

Indeed, for Senators Feinstein and Kennedy to label their alternative the "Human Cloning Prohibition Act" is about as accurate as calling a bill to license liquor stores a bill to eliminate drunkenness. But this studied disingenuousness of language appears all through the cloning argument. The paralyzed movie actor Christopher Reeve has become the spokesman for the pro-cloning forces, and he claimed at a press conference last week that stem cells obtained from cloned embryos offer him the chance for a cure. The medical evidence is dubious at best. But, worse, Reeve went on to justify cloning on the grounds that "we are not talking about destroying life, which begins at the moment of fertilization of a sperm and an egg. The public must understand that stem cells can be taken out of embryos that are not really embryos as they are not fertilized." This stands in contradiction to his claim, while he was one of the chief spokesmen for biotechnology during last year's embryonic stem-cell debate, that the whole question of stem cells didn't involve cloning since the necessary components could be obtained by harvesting the unused embryos left over from attempts at in-vitro fertilization.

But this is how the brave new world project advances. Each small piece of the jigsaw puzzle is held up by its advocates as though it existed in isolation, as though it implied nothing about what is to come. And then we are asked how we could possibly be opposed to it. Last year, it was how we could object to embryonic stem-cell research when that doesn't require cloning embryos for research. This year, it is how we can object to cloning embryos for research when that doesn't require bringing clones to birth. And next year, it will be how we can object to bringing clones to birth when that doesn't require the genetic redesign of our descendants.

Meanwhile, the whole picture is filled in, bit by bit. With its desire to clone, the biotech revolution has set itself against the human world of bodily birth and death, unique individuals living and dying in connected families. It promises instead a place of endless mirrors reflecting nothing but themselves, a sterile realm of childless parents and parentless children, a world turned strange, inhospitable, and inhuman.

This cannot be what we want the future to look like. But the future will look like this--unless we start by saying no to cloning and persuading the Senate to pass the Brownback-Landrieu bill.

--J. Bottum, for the Editors