The U.S. House last week voted 241-155 to ban human cloning both
for reproduction and medical research. Opponents snapped back that the
majority -- which included Democrats as well as Republicans -- was voting to
obstruct the march of progress and good works.
It is not that many in Congress or elsewhere lust for science to
commence the large-scale cloning of human beings: in other words, to start
manufacturing genetic copies of individuals through a procedure that is
known to work for animals -- conspicuously the late Finn Dorset sheep named
for Dolly Parton. There is so far too much Frankenstein-ism in the notion:
thunder crashing outside the castle tower, the blinding flash of electrodes.
The cloning sought by various scientists and advocates for the
sick and suffering would supposedly enhance medical research. Cloned human
embryos are seen as a source of stem cells that might -- might -- yield
answers for the treatment or prevention of afflictions like Alzheimer's and
Well, why not search? Because creating an embryo marked down as
an instrument of research involves deliberately offering this potential life
as a sacrifice. Is this within the human province -- deciding who gets to
live and who doesn't (while taking into account war and capital punishment)?
It is well within the human province -- as defined by the U.S.
Supreme Court, whose Roe vs. Wade ruling 30 years ago handed women the
constitutional right to abort a pregnancy. The argument we have today over
cloning is almost precisely the argument we have been having over abortion
for 30 years. It would seem we will be having it for a long time to come,
irrespective of what happens in Iraq or at the Academy Awards.
Roe vs. Wade, and the abortion culture it produced, made life in
many ways instrumental: good for such discrete purposes as it may serve,
rather than good in and of itself. This was something new in Western
culture, which had always regarded life in all its forms as the specific
gift of God. Life was theological. There were rules about its conduct and
handling. With Roe vs. Wade, life became officially divisible into
categories: useful and other-than-useful. An undesired pregnancy fit in the
latter category. Nothing more had to be said.
The cloning of embryos for medical purposes generates roughly
the same arguments as does abortion -- the measurability, or
non-measurability, of worth in a specific life.
A strong minority on the President's Council on Bioethics,
reporting last July, argued that "moral objections to (cloning for medical
research) are outweighed by the great good that may come from it;" that
embryos marked for destruction would serve "a great good, and this should
not be obscured."
Unpersuaded, the House voted against cloning for any purpose
whatever: knowing ... what? Perhaps that familiarity breeds relaxation,
gradually softening and diverting moral repulsion. Cloning for human
reproduction -- a minority persuasion so far -- enjoys backing from those
who see it as the means of producing the perfect, or near-perfect, baby:
comely, brainy, disease-free. That would be life as we have never before
experienced it; but what do we know, hmmm?
What the House believes it knows is the same thing the ethics
advisory committee's majority asserts: that we should wish to leave our
children "a world that honors moral limits, that respects all life whether
strong or weak, and that refuses to secure the good of some human beings by
sacrificing the lives of others."
Opponents of abortion make essentially the same argument, not
quite converting the nation when they do so but frustrating in some measure
the side that measures life by an instrumental yardstick.
The different turning the argument takes now -- cloning or no
cloning -- should mislead nobody. This is the same old ruckus. At its core,
we find the same piercing queries. Who gets to decide who lives? Who gets to
decide who doesn't?