It seems likely that President Bush's Council on Bioethics, which held its first meeting on Thursday, will support a ban on all forms of human cloning. The council's chairman, University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass, argues that a blanket prohibition is the only way to prevent the use of cloning for reproduction.
Kass has a point: If scientists are permitted to create human embryos with the same genes as donors, it will be hard to prevent them from implanting those embryos in surrogate mothers' uteruses. And once such a pregnancy is achieved, compulsory abortion will be the only way to enforce a ban on reproductive cloning.
The idea of producing children who are genetic replicas of living or dead individuals arouses almost universal repugnance. Kass' argument therefore carries weight with people who might otherwise be inclined to support the use of cloning for therapeutic purposes.
Therapeutic cloning does not mean creating disposable people from whom organs can be harvested. Rather, scientists would use genetic material from patients to create cloned embryos and then use stem cells from those embryos to produce replacements for damaged organs or tissue. Because the replacements would be an exact genetic match, the patients would not have to worry about immune system rejection.
Therapeutic cloning holds tremendous promise for people suffering from a wide variety of disabling or life-threatening conditions, including diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, cirrhosis, and heart disease. To justify foreclosing the possibility of prolonging and improving the lives of so many people, a powerful moral argument is required.
For some, that argument is based on the premise that a human embryo is a person from the moment of conception. If so, deliberate destruction of an embryo (which is what happens when stem cells are harvested) is murder, regardless of the motive. Scientific research that kills innocent people cannot be justified by the hope of saving others.
The implications of this argument extend well beyond therapeutic cloning. It applies with equal force to any form of embryonic stem cell research, whether or not the embryos are cloned and whether or not they are created especially for research.
Indeed, it applies to in vitro fertilization, which involves the creation of many embryos, only some of which are implanted. Anyone who believes that embryos have a right to life is also bound to oppose all forms of induced abortion, no matter the stage of pregnancy or the motive (with the possible exception of abortions aimed at saving the mother's life).
For those who reject this position, the main objection to stem cell research with cloned embryos is the one Kass raises: Once created, a cloned embryo could easily be slipped into someone's uterus and permitted to develop into a baby.
Given the stakes -- the lives of millions who could benefit from therapeutic cloning -- it's important to carefully consider the reasons why many people consider the birth of a cloned baby intolerable. It's not enough to rely on an intuition, no matter how widely shared.
Kass' most compelling argument against reproductive cloning is that it would frequently produce babies with serious birth defects. Most scientists agree that, given the current state of technology, trying to produce a cloned baby now would be reckless. But this objection will lose its force once the technology improves to the point where birth defects are no more likely in cloned babies than in babies produced the usual way.
Other objections focus on what life would be like for children who knew they were the identical twins of people born years before them. Wouldn't they be torn between the desire to find their own identities and the pressure to be just like someone else, whether a parent, a dead sibling, a famous artist, or a Nobel Prize winner?
There's no denying the potential for anguish in such situations, but it's not clear that they are fundamentally different from the dynamics that exist in many families produced through conventional means. The government does not, and should not, try to prevent parents from molding their children into copies of themselves, or from treating them like replacements for lost loved ones, or from pushing them to accomplish great things.
Such behavior, while it may be worthy of criticism, is not in the same category as beating or starving one's children, and the cost of trying to stop it through state intervention would be unacceptable. The same is true of human cloning.