Thou Shalt Not Create

Posted: Mar 11, 2005 12:00 AM

  I will work with Congress to ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation or grown for body parts, and that human life is never bought and sold as a commodity. (Applause)

     -- State of the Union address, Feb. 2, 2005
     WASHINGTON -- That declaration drew more than applause. It received a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle -- demonstrating that even amid the confusion and dishonesty in this country's bioethics debates, some truths remain self-evident. And one of those truths is that human embryos are to be created for the purpose of producing human babies, not for commerce and not to be dismembered for study or spare parts.

     Yet what was remarkable about this moment -- at the time, and for over a month now, almost entirely overlooked by the media -- was that the Democrats who rose to join the applause were endorsing a principle that is at war with a key part of their own biotech agenda: research cloning.

     Let me explain. When you clone a (somatic, i.e. adult) human cell, you turn it first into an embryonic cell with which you can do two things: (a) let it grow (in theory, with implantation in a uterus) to become a cloned baby, or (b) take it apart very early to derive stem cells (research cloning).

     Everyone opposes (a) because everyone agrees that cloning children is a monstrous idea that deserves to be banned. But congressional Democrats (with the support of some equally confused Republicans) support (b), research cloning. But that means you've just created a human embryo for the exclusive purpose of experimentation and dissection -- the banning of which most everyone in the House chamber stood up to cheer.

     The Democrats were oblivious to this self-contradiction. It jumped out at me because three years ago, in working out my own contribution to the cloning report of the President's Council on Bioethics (on which I serve), I had proposed creation as the bright line to separate what is permissible from what is impermissible in embryonic research.

     The principle I suggested was this: No creating human embryos for experimentation. That means ``no" to all cloning. And that means ``yes'' to using existing, already created embryos such as the thousands of frozen and/or discarded embryos left over from IVF clinics -- embryos created for the purpose of becoming children but which, for one reason or other, were not used.

     I support that research. The president does not. In his Aug. 9, 2001, address to the nation, he opposed embryonic research using newly discarded embryos from fertility clinics.

     I initially thought that the 2005 State of the Union declaration was signaling a retreat from that position. My firm understanding from subsequent inquiries is that it was not. The administration continues to oppose such research.

     But note that Bush only prevented federal funding for it. Bush did not ban it. It continues legally in the private sector. His State of the Union proposal would do nothing to change that balance. (Since it deals only with creation, it leaves aside the question of discarded embryos.)

     Presidents come and go. And when this president goes, the next president could, and likely will, reverse the Bush policy and allow federal funding for stem cells derived from newly discarded embryos.

     I would applaud that. But I deplore the step that proponents of such research are already demanding: research cloning, i.e., creating special embryos entirely for the purpose of using them for their parts.

     This is crossing a critical moral red line. We may honorably disagree about the moral dignity due a tiny human embryo. But we must establish some barrier to the most wanton, reckless and hubristic exploitation of the human embryo for our own purposes.     

     The line is easy to find: you do not create a human embryo to be a means to some other end. Most people with a moral sense, as demonstrated by the spontaneous response to the State of the Union declaration, understand immediately that there is something fundamentally different, fundamentally corrupting, fundamentally dangerous about allowing -- indeed encouraging -- the manufacture of human embryos for the purpose of their dissection and use for parts.

     It is time to act on precisely that intuition and pass a law that draws that line: no creation for the purpose of destruction. We need to do it consensually. And we need to do it now. Tomorrow is too late. By tomorrow we will have an embryo manufacturing industry, and we will already be numb to it.