The Magazine

The Party of Cloning

From the August 30, 2004 issue: The Democrats embrace the gospel of stem cells.

Aug 30, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 47 • By ERIC COHEN
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For a while, proponents of embryo research were willing to draw certain ethical lines and respect certain ethical limits. For example, when NIH proposed funding for the creation of embryos solely for research in 1994, the Clinton administration (which supported embryo research) rejected the proposal as too radical. And when President Bush deliberated about federal funding of stem cell research in 2001, stem cell advocates called for funding within limits: They argued that thousands of embryos were already frozen in storage, and that funding research on those embryos imposed no extra moral cost.

Today, the debate has moved on. Leading proponents of embryo research are more radical--demanding more public funding (without which they say research is "banned"), rejecting past limits, and promising the moon. Kerry epitomizes this radicalization of the stem cell movement. At Kerry's convention, Ron Reagan lauded "personal biological repair kits" derived from cloned embryos, and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, endorsed "therapeutic cloning."

So it seems Democrats are now poised to cross yet another ethical and political boundary: federal funding for the creation, study, and destruction of cloned human embryos. After all, if cloned embryos are necessary to provide stem cells tailor-made for the individual, and if stem cell research can succeed only with federal funding, then the day has come for a national project of cloned embryo research. The ideology of stem cells has made the Democrats the party of cloning. And like all true believers, they believe inconvenient facts can be ignored and that history is on their side.

"The medical discoveries that come from stem cells are crucial next steps in humanity's uphill climb," John Kerry declared this summer in a radio address. "The tide of history is with us," Ron Reagan intoned at the convention. "We have a chance to take a giant stride forward for the good of all humanity. We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology." Indeed, the stem cell issue has a visceral appeal to liberals, who construe it as a referendum on Bush's backward-looking religiosity and a sign of their own compassionate enlightenment. If only they can sweep aside misguided leaders who mistakenly see a moral problem in embryo research, the stem cell ideology can win over a generation of aging baby-boomers--who shudder at their own mortality and count medical progress among the highest goods. Paul Ramsey, the late bioethicist, was more sensible, believing that "the moral history of mankind is more important than its medical history." Usually the two move forward together--but not always.

If Kerry wins, the stem cell debate will be over, at least politically. He will reverse the three-year-old Bush policy of limiting federal funding to certain existing embryonic stem cell lines, and he will work to overturn the eight-year-old Dickey Amendment prohibiting federal funding for any research that directly involves the destruction of human embryos. He will begin a national project of embryo creation and destruction, enshrining it in American national policy.

And the debate about human cloning may also be over. As recently as July, John Kerry co-sponsored a bill that would allow the creation of embryos by cloning for research so long as they are destroyed after 14 days. Thus, in the name of curing disease, he would have us perfect the technology necessary to clone children. And if recent history is any guide, the taboo against cloning to produce children will erode, as the left defends it as just another reproductive choice. Even more broadly, the possibility of banning a whole range of radical new types of human procreation--producing children with genes from two men or two women, say, or producing children whose parents are dead fetuses--may disappear.

Perhaps this is the direction America is heading already--toward the normalization of the radical in biotechnology, and toward the loss of all qualms about using human embryos as research materials. Or perhaps, years from now, the embryo destruction project will be another embarrassing wart on American history--a moral error, corrected by those who follow us. But it is a distraction to look too far into the future, with either excessive despair or excessive optimism. Today's election is what matters now, and John Kerry has given America a clear choice: the party of cloning or the party of moral limits.

Eric Cohen is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of the New Atlantis.