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Eating Babies

A modest proposal in China shows where the Brave-New-World crowd has brought us.

11:00 PM, Jan 2, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
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YOU MAY HAVE MISSED IT in all the Raelian cloning news, but Channel 4 of British television began the New Year with a broadcast about a Chinese performance artist who eats a baby's corpse. Described by executives of Channel 4 as a "thought-provoking film about extreme art in China," the documentary features a man named Zhu Yu, who displays photographs in which he washes a stillborn child in a sink and then consumes it. Just for luck, the program, called "Beijing Swings," also features a man drinking the wine used to preserve an amputated penis and follows hard upon Channel 4's showing last month of a live-action autopsy. Insisting he could not "find any law which prevents us from eating people," Zhu Yu suggests, "I took advantage of the space between morality and the law and based my work on it."

We need a word for things that are so wrong, it is wrong even to report them--actions to which we somehow lend countenance just by entering into a discussion of why they are beyond all countenance. We saw some of this when Princeton University's Peter Singer proclaimed that a baby is less important than a pig and that we ought to have a twenty-eight-day trial period before we decide whether or not to let newborns continue living. The problem wasn't that we'd ever agree as a culture with Singer. The problem is that his position at Princeton made for a season the slaughter of the innocents a debatable moral question rather than an undebatable moral principle--the touchstone by which we are able to judge other moral propositions, like "eating the corpses of stillborn children is evil."

A few years ago, the London Daily Telegraph reported that "doctors at the state-run Shenzhen Health Centre for Women and Children hand out bottles of thumb-sized aborted babies to be made into meat cakes or soup with pork and ginger. Zou Qin, a doctor at the Luo Hu Clinic in Shenzhen, said the fetuses were 'nutritious' and that she had eaten one hundred herself in the last six months. 'We don't carry out abortions just to eat fetuses,' said Qin. '[But they would be] wasted if not eaten.'" And what--apart from vomiting--is the answer?

PRO-LIFE ACTIVISTS would certainly relate all this to abortion, and it's hard to say they're wrong. Once upon a time, we built hedge after hedge of protection around the deep things about life and death a culture must maintain. The hedges themselves are not all that important, but when they fall they weaken our defenses--however much those people who knock them down insist they are only clearing away a single hedge.

A prominent ethician once observed to me that back in the mid-1960s, when he first started in the field of what would come to be called bioethics, a standard discussion in medical ethics was about whether it was licit to terminate an ectopic pregnancy, in which the fetus was incapable of developing and its presence in a fallopian tube would quickly kill the mother. His point wasn't that we shouldn't allow the removal of an ectopic fallopian tube. It was, rather, that we used to assume even this life-saving procedure required a sophisticated and delicate argument before we permitted it. Hedge by hedge, that old sophistication and delicacy was bulldozed down until, thirty-odd years later, on December 20, Stanford University announced that it was building a $12 million research center that would deliberately create cloned human fetuses in order to destroy them for biomedical research.

The public figures who've fought cloning and the Brave New World of eugenics over the past few years insist that the biotechnological issues can be separated from abortion, and there are obvious ways in which they're right: If the abortion debate is really about "a woman's right to chose," then it has nothing to do with the question of creating life in laboratories.

But there are other ways in which the anti-cloning forces are wrong, for the prohibition against abortion is quickly proving to have been the key hedge against the disrespect for life. To offer a different metaphor, the Brave New World is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each small piece of the puzzle is held up by its advocates as though it existed in isolation, as though it implied nothing about what is to come, as though it were bad faith on the part of its opponents to point out that it fits in a larger picture. Back in 2001, we were told that the use of embryonic stem cells doesn't require cloning embryos for research. In 2002, we were told that cloning embryos for research doesn't require bringing clones to birth. And now, in 2003, the Raelians claim to have brought a clone to birth, and we are told that this doesn't require the genetic redesign of our descendants.

But it does, of course. Don't look at the single jigsaw-puzzle piece they're holding up this time. Look at the picture they're filling in with it. I do not know what final shape it will take, but Zhu Yu's cannibalism and Stanford's clone-to-destroy center both fit somewhere within it.

J. Bottum is Books and Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.