Cloning debate is not another monkey trial

Charles Krauthammer

5/10/2002 12:00:00 AM - Charles Krauthammer
WASHINGTON--Proponents of research cloning would love to turn the cloning debate into a Scopes monkey trial, a struggle between religion and science. It is not. Many do oppose research cloning because of deeply held beliefs that destroying a human embryo at any stage violates the sanctity of human life. I respect that view, but I do not share it. I have no theology. I do not believe that personhood begins at conception. I support stem cell research. But I oppose research cloning. It does no good to change the nomenclature. The Harry and Louise ad asks ``Is it cloning?'' and answers, ``No, it uses an unfertilized egg and a skin cell.'' But fusing (the nucleus of) a ``somatic'' cell (such as skin) with an enucleated egg cell is precisely how you clone. That is how Dolly the sheep was created (with the cell taken not from the skin but from the udder). And that is how pig, goat, cow, mouse, cat and rabbit clones are created. The scientists pushing this research go Harry and Louise one better. They want to substitute the beautifully sterile, high-tech sounding term SCNT--``somatic cell nuclear transfer''--for cloning. Indeed, the nucleus of a somatic cell is transferred into an egg cell to produce a clone. But to say that is not cloning is like saying ``No, that is not sex. It is just penile vaginal intromission.'' Describing the technique does not change the nature of the enterprise. Cloning it is. And it is research cloning rather than reproductive cloning because the intention is not to produce a cloned child but to grow the embryo long enough to dismember it for its useful scientific parts. And that is where the secularists have their objection. What makes research cloning different from stem cell research--what pushes us over a moral frontier--is that for the first time it sanctions the creation of a human embryo for the sole purpose of using it for its parts. Indeed, it will sanction the creation of an entire industry of embryo manufacture whose explicit purpose is not creation of children but dismemberment for research. It is the ultimate commodification of the human embryo. And it is a bridge too far. Reducing the human embryo to nothing more than a manufactured thing sets a fearsome desensitizing precedent that jeopardizes all the other ethical barriers we have constructed around embryonic research. This is not just my view. This was the view just months ago of those who, like me, supported federally funded stem cell research. The clinching argument then was this: Look, we are simply trying to bring some good from embryos that would otherwise be discarded in IVF clinics. This is no slippery slope. We are going to put all kinds of safeguards around stem cell research. We are not about to start creating human embryos for such research. No way. Thus when Sens. Tom Harkin and Arlen Specter were pushing legislation promoting stem cell research in 2000, they stipulated that ``the stem cells used by scientists can only be derived from spare embryos that would otherwise be discarded by in vitro fertilization clinics.'' Lest there be any ambiguity, they added: ``Under our legislation, strict federal guidelines would ensure (that) no human embryos will be created for research purposes.'' Yet two years later, Harkin and Specter are two of the most enthusiastic Senate proponents of creating cloned human embryos for research purposes. In testimony less than 10 months ago, Sen. Orrin Hatch found ``extremely troubling'' the just-reported work of the Jones Institute, ``which is creating embryos in order to conduct stem cell research.'' The stem cell legislation Hatch was then supporting--with its ``federal funding with strict research guidelines,'' he assured us--was needed precisely to prevent such ``extremely troubling'' procedures. That was then. Hatch has just come out for research cloning whose entire purpose is ``creating embryos in order to conduct stem cell research.'' Yesterday it was yes to stem cells with solemn assurances that there would be no embryo manufacture. Today we are told: Forget what we said about embryo manufacture; we now solemnly pledge that we will experiment on only the tiniest cloned embryo, and never grow it--and use it--beyond that early ``blastocyst'' stage. What confidence can one possibly have in these new assurances? This is not a slide down the slippery slope. This is downhill skiing. And the way to stop it is to draw the line right now at the embryo manufacture that is cloning--not just because that line is right, but because the very notion of drawing lines is at stake.