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Cloning and Congress

No Ban Is Better Than a Phony Ban Published in The Weekly Standard

WHAT’S LESS BAD: enacting a ban on so-called “reproductive” human cloning that explicitly authorizes cloning for research purposes, or passing no law at all prohibiting cloning in 2002? That is the seeming conundrum facing cloning opponents, since neither side in the great cloning debate apparently can muster the 60 votes needed to pass either a complete or partial cloning ban in the U.S. Senate.

Actually, there is no conundrum. Banning only reproductive cloning would accomplish absolutely nothing (in fact, as I will detail below, a ban on reproductive cloning only would lead to reproductive cloning). Indeed, such a phony law would be worse in the long run than no anti-cloning law at all. The “compromise” of banning reproductive cloning while authorizing research cloning is really no compromise, since pro-cloners would give up almost nothing and would greatly gain.

The first reason is political. Poll after poll shows that the American people want to ban human cloning. Knowing this, pro-cloners have resorted to a game of “hide the ball,” believing that their pseudo-ban on reproductive cloning would suffice to assuage public unease. Passing such a law would also allow politicos to brag to constituents in an election year that they had done “something” about cloning (an argument that would be abetted by the generally pro-cloning media). It would also take much of the steam out of the anti-cloning drive, which is a primary purpose behind the pseudo-ban.

The second reason pro-cloners would gain from a ban on reproductive cloning alone is that such a law would not actually prohibit anything that can be currently accomplished. Researchers are unable at this time to develop a human clone embryo that can be implanted in a woman’s womb. Indeed, learning how to do that would be one of the goals of research cloning.

For a human embryo to be successfully implanted — whether the embryo is created via fertilization or cloning — it must develop for at least five days until it reaches the blastocyst stage, when the embryo has an outer lining that develops into the placenta. Not coincidentally, this is also the stage when embryonic stem cells are harvested. These cells are the targets of “therapeutic cloning” researchers, who promise to someday make embryonic clones of millions of patients, harvest the clone’s stem cells, and use the resulting cell lines in “regenerative medicine” to treat various maladies without the body rejecting the cells, since they would be almost identical genetically to the patient’s own cells.

(In reality, adult stem cells offer better and quicker hope for developing regenerative medicine. For example, last week the science journal Nature reported that adult stem cells extracted from the bone marrow of mice appear to be as versatile as embryonic stem cells but without the problems of tumor formation and tissue rejection. Meanwhile, adult stem cells are already being used to treat human ailments such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis — the very diseases for which cloning is held out as a panacea 10 years from now.)

Learning how to reliably create human clone blastocysts will require much time and money, assuming it can be done at all. Indeed, the whole reason to explicitly legalize research cloning is to free up research grants and private investment for this very purpose. Here’s the catch: Should the research cloning enterprise succeed in creating human clone blastocysts, the legal ban on reproductive cloning now being touted by pro-cloners would immediately be attacked. It doesn’t take a psychic to predict the scenarios:

  • Infertile couples will file lawsuits claiming that the reproductive cloning ban violates their “fundamental right” to procreate. Considering the importance recent court decisions have placed on the right to reproduce, it is quite conceivable that once reproductive cloning could be done safely, the ban would be declared unconstitutional.
  • A major political campaign will be mounted, perhaps concurrently with such lawsuits. Teary-eyed couples will appear on “Oprah” urging an end to the ban on reproductive cloning so that they can have children. Since human cloning is now safe, they and their supporters in the biotech industry will argue, cloning should be viewed as merely another reproductive technology akin to in vitro fertilization.
  • A mad scientist, perhaps from offshore, will implant an embryo into a woman desiring to go down in history as the first birth mother of a human clone. Since no one will urge that she be forced to have an abortion, the birth of the child will be unstoppable. The event will produce spectacular headlines and no legal consequences. (Would society actually allow the parents of a cute baby to be jailed, much less the scientist who had helped the infant come into being?) The birth of the next such child will produce page three stories. The birth of the twentieth or thirtieth such child will be unremarkable and the ban will soon become functionally irrelevant, regardless of the actual state of the law.

For those who consider such scenarios unlikely, remember this: When the National Academy of Sciences urged the government to pass a ban on human reproductive cloning last year, it did so not because human cloning was deemed morally objectionable but because it currently wasn’t deemed “safe.” Such amoral reasoning hardly inspires confidence in the durability of a ban limited to reproductive cloning, or in the long-term commitment to maintaining it of those now urging that approach.

For those who believe that human cloning for any purpose is intrinsically immoral and dehumanizing, a pseudo-ban is worse than no ban at all. Accordingly, if our choice today is either acceptance of a ban on human reproductive cloning only or stalemate, we should choose stalemate. Far better to keep struggling for a moral public policy with integrity than surrender to political expediency and harmful half-measures.

Even without a ban today, we accomplish a lot by continuing to struggle toward outlawing the cloning of human life at both federal and state levels. (Iowa recently outlawed all human cloning within its borders.) As long as venture capitalists know that investing in immoral cloning research presents a significant financial risk, the Brave New World enterprise will continue to face a shortage of resources.

In the meantime, adult stem cell experiments likely will continue to demonstrate awesome potential, so that one day even the New York Times will be unable to ignore the news. Once the country recognizes that we can have regenerative medicine and morality too, the dogged resistance to a legal ban on all human cloning will collapse, and a proper legal ban will be enacted.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.