The Magazine

Clones and Rael-Politik

The Jack Kevorkians of the cloning debate weigh in.

Jan 13, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 17 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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SO THE RAELIANS, who maintain that human life was the product of cloning by space aliens, now claim that their for-profit corporation, Clonaid, has cloned the first human baby, a healthy female named Eve. There is no proof of any kind to verify this, and most of the world is highly skeptical. It took nearly 300 tries before Dolly the cloned sheep was born. While it is true that mammals like mice and cows are now cloned regularly, the failure rates in animal cloning remain very high, and efforts to clone a dog or monkey so far have failed. As for humans, an attempt by Advanced Cell Technology to clone a human embryo made headlines last year, but the embryo ceased dividing at the six-cell stage.

Still, the announcement is a triumph for the Raelians. It has set an important clock ticking. For even amid general condemnation in the media, we already see some people shrugging their shoulders and claiming you can't stop science. Last Thursday, for example, Washington Post pundit Richard Cohen raised the flag of surrender to Brave New World. Stating that he did not want to hear arguments about "ethics" or "human dignity," he opined that both therapeutic and reproductive cloning should go forward or science will be "forced into medical back alleys."

With help from voices like Cohen's, the Raelians are leading the way toward bio-anarchy by pursuing what I call the "Kevorkian strategy." With a sociopath's intuition, assisted-suicide pioneer Jack Kevorkian sensed that the day of the moral outlaw had arrived. He saw that in a non-judgmental age, if he were sufficiently brazen and unapologetic, he could convince people in the mainstream that they had a stake in his deadly plans--and then he could get away with almost anything.

For a time, it worked like a charm. When Kevorkian began his campaign, in 1990, the media flew into high dudgeon, just as they have over the Raelians. Scorn was heaped upon him for assisting suicides, and the light of publicity was shone on his bizarre medical career. This was the crucial moment. Had he wavered, Kevorkian would have been finished and soon forgotten. But he stayed the course. Claiming for himself the mantle of modern rationality and castigating his opponents as superstitious religionists, he turned the tide by his very defiance.

The tone of the coverage changed from criticism to something near adulation. Many, like Andy Rooney, lauded him as a courageous pioneer. Before long, Kevorkian's body dumps became almost routine. Even though most of his 130 or so victims were not terminally ill (and 5 weren't ill at all, according to their autopsies), juries refused to convict him. Before our very eyes "Wacky Jacky," as Jay Leno called him, was transformed from a pariah into a celebrity and, to some, a hero.

Kevorkian stated clearly that his ultimate goal was not to relieve suffering but to gain access to dying people upon whom to experiment: He called his human vivisection "obitiatry." But the more he thumbed his nose at propriety and morality, the more impotent the law appeared and the more popular he became. He achieved his peak the night he was wined and dined at Time magazine's 75th anniversary party, where mega-celebrities such as Tom Cruise rushed up to shake his hand.

But Kevorkian finally took half a step too far. He crashed to earth after videotaping himself murdering ALS patient Thomas Youk and giving the tape to a fawning Mike Wallace for broadcast on "60 Minutes" on November 22, 1998. Kevorkian's megalomania was bared for all to see. A jury sent him up the river, and he sits today in a Michigan penitentiary, a nearly forgotten man.

The Raelians and others who claim to be busily cloning human children seem to have adopted Kevorkian's strategy of defiance. Society's moral revulsion? Irrelevant. The likelihood that a cloned child would have serious health problems caused by genetic defects? Beneath concern. The Raelians and the parents willing to participate in this immoral human experimentation want what they want, the opinions of society and the health consequences be damned. The cult proudly claims to have several other cloned babies in gestation.

This sort of flouting of the law, societal norms, and/or moral sensibilities is bubbling up throughout the fields of bioethics and biotechnology. Thus, Stanford University announced in December that it is creating a research center that will clone human embryos for medical research. Actually, unlike the Raelians and Kevorkian, Stanford lacked the courage of its convictions and pretended that what is being planned isn't human cloning at all. It even went so far as to inaccurately state that its definition of cloning was in accord with that adopted by the President's Council on Bioethics. This led Leon Kass, the head of the council, to chastise Stanford for misstating the council's position. Stanford apologized to the council but continued to insist that somatic cell nuclear transfer isn't cloning when it's done for biomedical research. Head researcher Irving Weismann hopes other institutions will follow Stanford's lead until cloning for biomedical research is utterly unremarkable.

To show how far all of this may go, the New Jersey senate just passed S-1909, a bill that would permit the cloning of human embryos for biomedical research--and apparently would also permit their implantation and gestation up until the very moment of birth before requiring their destruction. The only cloned humans outlawed by the language of the bill are newborns.

As recently as two years ago, biotech advocates were promising that all they wanted was to be able to use for research embryos left over from in vitro fertilization and destined to be tossed out anyway. Now, not only are cloned embryos to be manufactured, but perhaps even late-term fetuses. Thanks to in-your-face Kevorkianism and our refusal to resist it by drawing firm ethical lines for the proper regulation of biotechnology, cloned children may well be on the way even if the Raelians are lying about Eve.

The analogy with Kevorkianism suggests it may still be possible to apply the brakes: The bio-anarchists could commit some outrage sufficient to rouse Washington into passing a ban, or at least a moratorium, on all human cloning. Already some of the most "progressive" nations in the world--Canada, Australia, Norway, France, Taiwan--have banned all human cloning or soon will.

But it took eight years to stop Kevorkian--and his assisted-suicide movement continues to thrive. With the pace at which biotechnology is advancing, we don't have that kind of time. While cranks like the Raelians may be discredited, the movement they represent is plunging ahead.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of "A Consumer's Guide to Brave New World" (forthcoming).