This week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a last-ditch legal challenge to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Ten years ago that decision would have generated celebratory headlines and heated public debate. Instead, the news came and went with barely a whisper.
Why did this issue age and fade so quickly? First, I’d submit, the public no longer believes the stem cell hype. For years, ESCR activists promised imminent cures, but after some fifteen years, where are they? People can remain in a state of anticipatory excitement only for so long.
Second, stem cell science has moved on. Uncontroversial adult stem cell research—once damned with faint praise by ESCR advocates—has advanced to the point where it is now a field of primary interest for developing new and innovative treatments for conditions ranging from spinal cord injury to heart disease to multiple sclerosis. At the same time, embryonic-like “induced pluripotent stem cells” have been derived from ordinary skin cells, offering many of the same benefits as touted for embryonic cells. Indeed, the development of the IPSC process was deemed such an important breakthrough that its inventor, Shinya Yamanaka, won the Nobel Prize.
Finally, President Bush’s controversial ESCR funding policy was repealed by President Obama early in his first term. With the media no longer reporting the stem cell issue through an anti-George Bush prism, the story lost most of its political resonance.
This is not to say that the controversy over biotechnology is over. To the contrary, we are currently in a temporary period of calm until scientists announce the creation of the first human cloned embryos. When—not if—that happens, the heated public debate will make the ESCR brouhaha seem like a day at Disneyland.
Proponents of human cloning believe it offers tremendous scientific potential and the opportunity to make fortunes. But opponents like myself—both on the political left and right—strongly believe that human cloning is intrinsically immoral, meaning that no potential utilitarian benefit justifies developing the technology.
Why are we so opposed? Space doesn’t permit a full explanation, but here is a brief sampling:
Because each attempt at human cloning requires a human egg, large scale research into perfecting the technology could lead to the exploitation of women, for example, by opening the door to the establishment of a commodity market in human eggs that could tempt poor women to put their health at risk.
Reproductive cloning would also result in viewing cloned babies as “human products” that would be “made to order,” by “their producers or progenitors.” As the president’s council on bioethics noted, “manufactured objects become commodities in the marketplace, and their manufacture comes to be guided by market principles and financial concerns.”
Ultimately, cloning would be the key that opens the door to countless other brave new world technologies, like one possible future procedure already termed “fetal farming,” whereby cloned fetuses would be matured in artificial wombs as sources of organs for transplant patients. Cloning is also the essential technology to learning how to genetically engineer human life, a technology with which “transhumanists” hope to create a “post-human species.” As the Princeton biologist Lee Silver, a cloning and human enhancement enthusiast, wrote in Remaking Eden: “without cloning, genetic engineering is simply science fiction. But with cloning, genetic engineering moves into the realm of reality.”
If we agree that human cloning is unethical, how do we stop it, and what have we learned from recent public policy debates over biotechnology? We could follow the urging of the United Nations General Assembly and support an international treaty outlawing all human cloning as “incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.” Absent an international ban, the federal and state governments could take action.
But as political battles over ESCR demonstrated, actions seen as stifling research are risky, and too often allow proponents of the research to reduce essential issues and nuanced discussion to a predictable trope of “science” under attack from religion. Starving cloning on the vine could prove easier. The technology will cost a lot of money to perfect. Thus, passing national and state laws prohibiting all public funding of human cloning research would put a severe crimp on developing the technology and possibly dissuade the most talented scientists from pursuing the field. Bans on purchasing human eggs for use in biotechnological research would also help by depriving researchers of an essential ingredient in the cloning process.
Finally, to prevent the public from being seduced by the same siren-song hype about “cures” we saw a decade ago with ESCR, we need to assure people that scientists can obtain many of the benefits they want most from biotechnology through alternative, ethical means. In this regard, induced pluripotent stem cells have already become valuable research tools in studying disease models and drug testing—and in the precise ways that proponents once claimed would require cloning to accomplish.
With the development of powerful biotechnologies, we find ourselves at one of the most important crossroads in human history. We can—and should—pursue ethical biotechnological research to treat disease and improve the human condition without concomitantly infringing on the intrinsic value of human life. The coming moral struggle over the propriety of human cloning will determine whether we accomplish this crucial goal.