You can't clone ethics

Posted: Sep 11, 2001 12:00 AM
Billionaire Jim Clark expects the world to applaud his decision to withhold $60 million of a $150 million pledge to Stanford as his protest against federal stem-cell and cloning policies. Children often think that when they throw a selfish tantrum others will understand and applaud. But the world rarely applauds. In this instance, Clark is a rich guy using his millions to make others bow to his will and squeezing innocents in the process. Even if you side with Clark in opposing the Bush decision to limit federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research to existing lines and a House measure to outlaw human cloning, beware. If this strategy can work on a life-and-death issue for a rich liberal, it can work for a rich conservative. It's so heavy-handed. Clark (who founded Netscape, Silicon Graphics and Healtheon) had pledged to give $150 million to Stanford University for its James H. Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering. With his decision to renege on $60 million of the pledge "pending the outcome of ongoing political deliberations," the university should rename it the Sulk Center. Clark's spokesman said Clark didn't want to answer questions from the press about his decision or the op-ed article he wrote for The New York Times. So I didn't get to ask Clark why he doesn't pay for research with new stem cells himself. Instead of yanking millions because Bush won't budge, he should give more. Especially since he wrote that he fears that the Bush decision will "drive the formation of a new pharmaceutical industry outside of the United States." It doesn't make sense: If he can't make the government spend other people's money on research which many taxpayers find repugnant, the answer is not to withdraw money for research in which he believes. Or says he believes. His New York Times piece also lacks solid footing. Clark argues, "Cloning a complete human being violates something intrinsic to our moral sense, and to my knowledge, no one at Stanford is interested in this. Nonreproductive cloning, or therapeutic cloning, however, is simply a process to create genetically compatible cells. Perhaps it should not be called cloning at all." Nigel Cameron, founding editor of "Ethics and Medicine," and dean of the Wilberforce Forum, Chuck Colson's prison ministry, notes: "That really is quite dishonest. It's using language to obscure the science. The intent may be different, but the activity is the same." Clark sets up a false dichotomy: On one side stand selfless, good-guy scientists; on the other, stand "ignorance, conservative thinking and fear of the unknown." His view works best for those who don't remember Nazi doctors experimented on Jews or American scientists conducted the vile Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. In those cases, the health of some humans was sacrificed for the greater health of humanity -- no thank you. As Cameron said of his opposition to using stem cells for research: "No one doubts this will help sick people. The question is whether it's the right thing to do." The other false dichotomy is Clark's representation of the debate as between cloning humans and cloning body parts. Personally, I have no problem with using discarded days-old embryos to clone cells to save lives. But I have to support the Bush policy because I know how America works and fear where cloning days-old embryos could lead. When you open a door a crack, it eventually opens wide. If it is legal to grow an embryo for a few days to harvest its cells, then it is only a matter of time before it is legal to grow an embryo for a few weeks to harvest "material." Before you know it, you have fetus farms. It sounds crazy, but consider how know-it-alls scoffed at those who feared that some day doctors would throw out embryos as "extras" when in vitro fertilization was nascent. Remember how the late Hubert Humphrey promised that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would not be used to impose quotas or racial preferences? Consider how equal rights for women have evolved into health plans paying for sex changes for transsexuals. Ethics evolve too. When Jim Clark shows that he is ready to withhold millions for medical research from Stanford to punish Washington, he does nothing to enhance my dim view of ethics in biotechnology.