Friday, November 30, 2001

For all of the heat generated by the current firestorm over human cloning, it’s shed very little light. Indeed, to the extent it’s illuminated anything all, it’s shown us how much ignorance and hype there is out there. And I’m not referring to the so-called religious zealots.

First of all, there are no human clones, and it’s not clear there ever were. Despite what you may have heard on the Sunday talk shows or read on the cover of U.S. News & World Report, the recent attempts to create a clone were a failure.

Using techniques long established for animal cloning, scientists at Advanced Cell Technology inserted genetic materials from two different types of cells into the nucleus of an unfertilized egg. Of the 11 eggs injected with skin cells, none divided. Not even once.

When they tried the same approach, this time using cumulus cells (which normally help provide nutrients to eggs), three of the eight eggs actually managed to divide. The most successful result was an egg that grew to a whopping six cells before it fizzled out. But some scientists point out that eggs often divide several times without the aid of their genes anyway, so it’s not even clear that any cloning took place at all.

More to the point, there were none of the stem-cell-carrying blastocysts we heard so much about in earlier debates. Indeed, there are various forms of birth control that terminate human life at a considerably later date than what might have been created in the labs of Advanced Cell Technology.

This didn’t stop the CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, Michael West, from conducting a whirlwind media blitz, claiming that what he’s done is of monumental significance. But as the New York Times reveals (surprising to Times-bashers like me, the paper’s reportage on the matter has been excellent), Mr. West is as concerned with getting publicity and investors as he is with the weighty issues of the day. His company released its findings in an obscure, oddly named journal, E-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine, because it agreed to coordinate its publication with the company’s publicity campaign.

Now, of course, if you believe that life begins at conception, then even the most rudimentary success is profoundly significant. And, if you believe cloning is an absolute moral wrong that will only lead to even greater moral wrongs, then even the smallest and most faltering steps down that road are steps in the wrong direction.

And this illustrates, I think, why the opponents of cloning understand this argument much better than the proponents do. The conventional wisdom is that cloning opponents are indistinguishable from abortion opponents who, as all right-thinking people allegedly know, are just a bunch of backward ignorant rubes and zealots.

The truth, however, is quite the opposite. First, as the Wall Street Journal editorial page recently noted, reproductive cloning (making a person) is banned across Europe (even in the “pro”-cloning United Kingdom) where abortion is a settled issue. So, even the enlightened sophisticates across the pond understand there’s something wrong with cloning other than “mere” pro-life objections.

Cloning either to make a walking, talking person or to harvest the stem cells from an embryo raises the most fundamental questions about the roles of science, theology, government, human nature and the free market. And while I think there’s a perfectly rational argument against cloning or at least a long moratorium on it that doesn’t rely on religious principles, it’s impossible to dispute that religious principles have a lot to say to us on the subject.

But the pro-cloning scientists and their boosters all too often express contempt for anyone offering objections of a religious nature. One small example: On Monday, National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” invited NPR science correspondent, Joe Palca, to clarify the issues surrounding cloning. When a caller asked why President Bush and others think cloning is immoral, Mr. Palca responded, “I think it’s more a question, I mean, of where you draw the line in terms of your own moral standing. I mean, is it moral to shave your face? Some religions see that, or some interpretations of some religions see that, as unacceptable.”

Now, I would bet you that not one in a thousand of the religious experts who oppose cloning are as ignorant about science as Mr. Palca is about religion. Even the Taliban’s in-house mullah or the most pious (and bearded) Hasidic Jew, I’m sure, would guffaw at the suggestion that the “morality” of shaving can be compared to the implications of lab-fabricated human beings.

Besides, the science is ultimately irrelevant. Like most people, I am ill-equipped to explain with scientific fluency how a nuclear bomb works. But that doesn’t mean that nonscientists are ineligible to discuss the ramifications of nuclear war. We don’t ask mechanics and engineers where we should drive our cars, and we shouldn’t rely on scientists or their boosters to settle the most profound of social questions. Let’s stipulate that the how of cloning will be solved eventually and get to work on answering the why of cloning before it’s too late.

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