"Can" isn't the same as "will," but when the topic is human cloning the two are chillingly close. Genetic twins, you might say.
Knowing how to clone a human embryo for "therapeutic" purposes ... the proud achievement of the Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) company in Worcestor, Mass., ... doesn't mean, in the technical sense, that we're ready to start rolling out new assembly-line babies, fresh and cute as a cell phone or a motorcycle fender. After all, none of the three engineered embryos survived.
But "can," assuming the validity of the ACT experiment, is just that: "can." Moreover, "can" leads to "might," ... and "might" is one of those terms you never laugh off, as in "a-hijacked-jetliner-might-someday-incinerate-an-American-skyscraper."
And so the question must move beyond provisionality. It should be framed the way a talk-show host like Ted Koppel frames it, hoping to elicit argument: "What's wrong with that?" What's "wrong," in other words, with the artificial manufacture of life, and why shouldn't we jump joyously at the prospect of curing disease and extending life through the research possibilities thereby opened up to us?
One possible answer is that the prospect makes the flesh crawl, particularly with other, non-life-destroying avenues available to the same ends. But that's not an objective answer. We need a better reason to embargo ... as Congress may get around to doing, with encouragement from the president ... cloning for any purpose.
The question, unfortunately, is one for which Americans aren't primed, having spent most of the post-World War II period detaching sexual activity from moral responsibility. The U.S. Supreme Court's abortion-if-you-want-it regime sets the tone. Life matters, yes. With, ahem, exceptions: an unwanted baby, a child likely to be born deformed. Not much use in lives like these ... or so Roe vs. Wade has for 28 years entitled Americans to declare. The go-ahead-and-kill-me-now movement ... the euthanasia movement, that is to say ... follows logically from our experience with abortion. That is, we have a common denominator for judgment ... the relative usefulness of this or that life. If we want a particular life preserved, fine; if not, let it go.
So when we get to "therapeutic" cloning, we're a little disarmed, morally speaking. Someone we know, or know about, has diabetes. In response, we clone somebody else ... actually a lot of somebodies, given that this is research ... and we find a way of retarding diabetes, and it sounds wonderful until you stop and reflect that in the process various somebodies die. Well, maybe, as Scrooge put it, it can be construed as their duty to die and "decrease the surplus population."
But this kind of cold-blooded calculus can still make the flesh crawl ... a wholly encouraging sign that we haven't lost our humanity. Not yet, though we know what happened with abortion. We contrived over time to quit talking about "life" in order to talk about "rights," and that clinched the deal for many.
It's very odd. We profess our love of sex. Then we act as though there were nothing to the whole thing but recreation; nothing requiring care or gingerliness or, heaven forfend, responsibility and concern for that which comes forth from the physical relationship. Americans love sex? One could argue with equal force that they hate it.
Back to cloning. Congress not only "can" but likely "will" ban it, instructing ACT to find some other line of inquiry. It could be said that this is Big Government at work ... telling the marketplace what to do and where to get off. Good.
"Usefulness" is a legitimate benchmark for products in which the marketplace regularly traffics ... shoes, cars, cabernet sauvignon. Note the common link: None of these products, in contrast with an embryo, is human. We keep government around for challenges exactly like this one.