CONSCIENCE IS A SLIPPERY THING. In 2001, during the first few months of the Bush presidency, America engaged in a debate about the ethics of embryo research. The policy question was narrow: Should the federal government use public funds to support stem cell research that involves embryo destruction? But everyone knew that the issue was actually much larger--about whether we should be the kind of country that uses some (nascent) lives to benefit others, the kind of country that plunges ahead in revolutionary new areas of biotechnology without establishing clear moral limits.
Research advocates made their case by saying that thousands of embryos in fertilization clinics were "going to die anyway," and that of course no one was suggesting we create human embryos solely for research. The ethical argument was unconvincing--being destined to die hardly turns human beings into things, otherwise no one would feel safe in a nursing home. But at least the research advocates endorsed the notion that there was a line they did not want us to cross.
Today, most advocates of embryonic stem cell research offer no limits and seem to accept no compromises. Last week, a team of South Korean and American researchers announced a successful experiment: They had created scores of cloned human embryos that they then destroyed to produce 11 stem cell lines. So we have truly entered the age of human cloning. Any competent team of researchers in a laboratory anywhere in the world can now create cloned human embryos to the blastocyst stage--and then try to implant them in efforts to initiate a pregnancy. If they fail, they can--and some will--try and try again. To be sure, there will be many grotesque failures along the way to cloned babies--just as there were when Dolly the cloned sheep was created. And the children who make it to birth will inevitably suffer deformities and health problems. But the first cloned child is coming soon, and with it a new, terrible moment in the history of modern science.
In America, there are currently no prohibitions and no limits on human cloning. There are no limits on the creation and destruction of human embryos. There are no limits on the implantation of human embryos into animal wombs to generate fetuses for spare parts. There are no limits on the creation of man-animal hybrids using animal sperm and human eggs or human sperm and animal eggs. There are no real ethical limits on anything.
This week, the House of Representatives will likely vote on a bill (sponsored by Delaware Republican Mike Castle and Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette) to provide federal funding for research involving the destruction of embryos left over in fertility clinics. Castle-DeGette is being sold as a moderate measure--very strange, because the current funding policy is already so moderate. Embryo research proceeds in the private sector; many avenues of stem cell research are funded by the government; but those citizens who believe embryo destruction is a grave evil are not forced to be directly complicit in this activity.
The Castle-DeGette bill is also strange because any imagined federal funding in this area would be tiny compared with the $3 billion California has already made available for this research. And it is strange because the loudest advocates for funding research on "spare" embryos are also the loudest advocates for advancing research involving the creation and destruction of cloned human embryos for research.
Indeed, the research lobby has justified so-called "therapeutic cloning" by saying that tailor-made stem cell lines--impossible to make using only "spare" embryos--are what they really need to make this science work for patients. So why all the fuss about federal funding for research on "spare" embryos? Is this all they really want? Or do they simply wish to open the door to funding for research on cloned embryos--i.e., to federally funded human cloning?
President Bush last Friday promised to veto the Castle-DeGette bill, making the House vote a symbolic one. And the President's Council on Bioethics earlier this month released a report describing a series of promising alternatives that may allow us to produce just the kind of disease-specific pluripotent stem cells that researchers want without destroying human embryos. Is the vote so urgent that we don't have time at least to explore these alternatives first, especially when it will take a short time to see if they hold promise?
Everyone wants cures for terrible diseases, and no one doubts the compassion that many Castle-DeGette supporters have for those who suffer. But surely those who seek to advance modern medicine should aim to do so in a way that all citizens can embrace, and in a way that ensures that we do not turn the medical ethic on its head, by treating some lives as tools to help others.
One does not need to believe that human embryos are human persons to have one's conscience stirred by our current predicament--where the drive to advance stem cell research has apparently made us tolerant of human cloning. One simply needs to believe that we should not bulldoze ahead with ethically hazardous research in an environment with no limits on the brave new world; and that we should try every other avenue of scientific possibility before trampling the values of many fellow citizens to make embryo destruction a national project. This is what the Castle-DeGette bill really does, under the false guise of moderation.
The Democratic left sees stem cell research as a way to make the dehumanization of early human life a prerequisite for being pro-health and pro-science. This is not the path of moderation; it is the path of ideological excess, leading toward funding the kind of research that will bring the age of human cloning, or worse, that much closer.
Eric Cohen is editor of the New Atlantis and resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.