Thwarting Dr. Frankenstein

Posted: Mar 04, 2003 12:00 AM
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 Parkinson's. 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?