Closing in on Cloning

Wesley J. Smith
Permission Granted

The Brave New World Order is hurtling toward us at Mach speed. With the announcement by Advanced Cell Technology that it has created the first human clones and developed them into six–cell embryos, the country finds itself at an ethical point of no return. Either Congress will ban human cloning, or human cloning will soon be a fait accompli.

With cloning — and its first cousin, embryonic stem cell research — biotech companies are embarked upon a radical enterprise. They intend to make vast fortunes by patenting and marketing products derived from the destruction of human life. If they succeed, certain categories of humanity will be reduced to a commodity with no greater moral standing than penicillin mold. For those who doubt the objectifying intent of this research, note the language of an October 1, 2001, press release by the Geron Corp., crowing that one of its recent research breakthroughs "greatly facilitates the development of scalable manufacturing processes to enable commercialization of hES (human embryonic stem) cell–based products."

How did we get this far down the slippery slope this fast? After all, it has been only a few months since President Bush supposedly settled the stem cell debate by permitting limited federal funding of research using existing stem cell lines derived from human embryos. But as the Spanish Civil War was really just the opening engagement of World War II, the controversy over embryonic stem cell research can now be seen as merely a precursor to the greater clash over cloning about to unfold.

The struggle over embryonic stem cell research began less than two years ago when biotech companies and their allies within the bioethics movement convinced President Clinton to open the spigot of federal funding. Clinton was willing, but he had a significant legal problem to overcome. Extracting stem cells kills embryos and federal law (the Dickey Amendment) explicitly prohibits federal funding for destructive embryonic research.

What to do? Clinton's bioethics commission recommended a Clintonian approach: Simply use private money to pay for destruction of the embryos and the extraction of their stem cells. After that, the federal government could pick up the tab. Clinton signed the order shortly before leaving office, and in doing so plopped George W. Bush right onto the hot griddle of an unwanted moral controversy.

Fulfilling his campaign promise to oppose embryonic stem cell research, President Bush promptly suspended Clinton's executive order, sparking a furious, three–pronged political counterattack. First, making a strong appeal to the pragmatism that is central to the American character, promoters of embryonic stem cell research promised that only unwanted embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures and due to be destroyed would be used in the research. Since these embryos were doomed in any event, the argument went, we might as well get some use out of them.

The second prong consisted of junk science. Proponents of embryonic stem cell research, such as Senator Orrin Hatch, argued that the embryos in question weren't really the early stages of human life because they would never be implanted. "Life begins in a womb, not in a Petri dish," Hatch said. Others assured squeamish Americans that these frozen humans "no larger than the period at the end of this sentence," as the pro–stem cell research propaganda had it, were actually "pre–embryos," cells of no significant moral concern.

The third prong was an intensely emotional appeal — typically featuring testimony from celebrity disease or injury victims such as Christopher Reeve, Mary Tyler Moore, and Michael J. Fox — promoting embryonic stem cell research as a veritable cornucopia of miraculous medical cures. We were told that if the government would only fund such research, quadriplegics might walk, Parkinson's patients would regain control over their bodily movements, and diabetics would be liberated from insulin.

This well–coordinated campaign was successful. Polls soon showed growing support for federal funding — so long as only doomed, leftover in vitro embryos were used. By last summer, the pressure to fully fund embryonic stem cell research had grown white hot, with more than 60 senators and 260 congressmen — including some of the president's closest political allies — publicly vowing to overturn a decision by President Bush to prohibit federal funding. Pushed into this very tight political corner, the administration let it be known that President Bush had entered a season of deep moral contemplation.

In early August, in his first televised policy speech to the nation, Bush announced his decision. Informing the nation of the importance of the moral issues involved in the debate, Bush announced that he would permit limited federal funding of research involving stem cell lines extracted from embryos — but only from cell lines already in existence. In other words, no federal money would fund research on stem cell lines taken from embryos that were not already dead.

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research howled at having their agenda substantially thwarted. Americans were warned, hyperbolically, that a new "dark age" in scientific research was descending. Some scientists spoke of pulling up stakes and moving overseas. At least one prominent researcher did just that.

Opponents, on the other hand, were divided. Some, including this writer, applauded the decision, believing that President Bush's "compromise" had the virtue of being politically defensible and was thus the best decision possible under difficult circumstances. Others denounced the decision on principle, worrying that by permitting federal funding of research on cell lines that had been derived from the taking of embryonic human life, the imprimatur of the United States would be placed on the entire enterprise, making it almost impossible to prevent further encroachments by the Brave New World Order. That judgment will be tested in the attempt to outlaw human cloning.


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