Send in the clones

The president's opposition to cloning stem cells is based on scientific superstition and Luddite fears.

Published November 30, 2001 10:30PM (EST)

When I tell people I'm pro-life, they tell me I'm a slave to foolish consistency. But, I reply in true Kantian style, that consistency may be foolish to relativists, but it is the defining feature of any ethics worth following. Otherwise what's the point? If you can bend your principles to suit your convenience, you're a pragmatist, which is, by definition, an unethical thing to be. You can't be pragmatic and ethical at the same time unless you're lying to yourself. Which is, of course, what a great many people do when they think about embryonic life, whether in the context of abortion, or, more recently, stem cell research and human cloning.

You see, we don't like to admit to ourselves that the expedient thing is almost always more appealing than the right thing. And since it's rare that the expedient thing and the right thing turn out to be the same thing, we tend to choose the expedient thing and then try to justify it after the fact. That's what we've been doing with abortion all along, because, well, unwanted babies are just too damned inconvenient. So we've had to find a way to kill them without feeling bad about it. And how have we done that? Simple. A fertilized egg isn't human until, umm, until we decide it is -- yeah that's it -- which may or may not be when it has a heartbeat, or brain waves, or, alas, in the case of partial-birth abortion, not until it passes the lips of the vagina and plops out onto the table for all to see. Yes, that should work nicely. Good. Done.

Denial is a beautiful thing.

The same kind of thinking went on a few months ago when we were all up in arms about stem cell research. We needed to kill embryos again, and this time not because they were inconvenient, but because they were convenient. We needed their golden cells, the ones that can grow into organs for transplant, and fresh memories for Alzheimer's patients, and a million other things that sick people all over the world really, really need and deserve.

And it just so happened that we had a few frozen embryos lying around -- ones we'd saved for later because the mothers and fathers who conceived them were on fertility drugs, but, now that they think about it, didn't want more than one baby. What to do with the surplus septuplets? Aha! Why not save 'em for later? They might come in handy. And what do you know? Lo and behold that day has arrived. We can make use of these puppies now. Nobody else is using them. They're just sitting there in the Frigidaire twiddling their blastocyst thumbs. Besides, if we don't use them, they're just going to go in the garbage anyway. It's better to kill them for a good cause and then throw them out in the trash. Right. Great idea. Thanks. See ya.

And now, at last, we come to human cloning. Amazingly, however, in this case conscience might have started seeping in. It seems we may have figured out a way to grow the stem cells we want without actually creating a human being, which may mean we can stop killing for convenience.

This all came to light earlier this week when a small biotechnology company, Advanced Cell Technology, in Worcester, Mass., announced that it had successfully cloned the first human embryo. Upon closer inspection of the results, it turns out that the so-called success was short-lived. "Successfully" turned out to mean that a few of the cloned "embryos" managed to divide once or twice before they died. Hardly a feat of Frankensteinian proportions, but in the insanely competitive world of test tube body snatching, everyone is eager to have his name, or preferably his company's name, associated at least with the transient eurekas, if not the actual "Hello Dolly" incarnations of playing God.

But some interesting news did surface in the failure. According to the experts, cloning can be done in one of two ways. The egg can be fertilized by the nucleus of an adult cell (a skin cell, for example), in which case, the resulting embryo could, at least theoretically, grow into a human being. That is, if we can figure out how to keep the cells alive into the blastocyst stage and beyond -- which is exactly what ACT was unable to do in its labs.

An alternative technique (called parthenogenesis) stimulates, but doesn't fertilize, the egg, in which case, the resulting "embryo" would never develop into a baby. ACT tried this method as well, with slightly better results. What's most exciting about this second technique, however, is the fact that, if we can perfect it, it means that a human being need not be destroyed in the process of cloning and harvesting stem cells and perhaps even organs.

President Bush and others responded to all of this by stating in no uncertain terms that human cloning is unethical and should be outlawed. By this, one presumes, he meant all human cloning, or human cloning on principle. Does he find it morally repugnant or perhaps unbearably hubristic for man to climb this far up the tree of knowledge? After all, we were thrown out of Eden for a much lesser offense than making clay figures of our own. A lot of people feel this way about human cloning. Some just find it creepy and too brave new worldish for their taste.

But these are not ethical arguments. These are Luddite fears, and religious prejudices about the place of man in God's creation. They fail to consider the fundamental question at issue: Are we killing human embryos? That is the real and only compelling reason I've heard for why we should be against human cloning. It's the same reason we should be against abortion and stem cell farming. It's not OK to kill a person -- and yes, I think it's a person at conception -- just because it's the expeditious thing to do.

If, some day, we can clone human beings successfully, and if (and this is a big if) we respect the civil rights of those clones and allow them to grow into fully functional human beings, then ethically speaking, I see no reason to be against it. How human beings are created -- so long as we can insure that they are healthy (which, granted, the current cloning technology cannot yet insure), and so long as we allow them to pursue their own lives and happinesses -- is irrelevant. This isn't to say that our fears about the Boys From Brazil aren't worth considering. These are fears about technology gone awry, and they are not weightless fears. They just aren't ethical fears.

By Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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Abortion Stem Cells