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Last week, amid much fanfare, a company called Advanced Cell Technology announced that they had successfully cloned a human embryo.
“Successfully” turns out to have been too strong a word, since the clone didn’t make it past the six-cell stage. But it seems safe to say that there will be other attempts, other partial successes, other steps forward—and eventually, human cloning will become a reality.
Already, one can see enlightened opinion on the subject taking its predictably muddled shape. At least for now, no one wants to come out in favor of “reproductive cloning,” in which a cloned embryo would actually be implanted in the womb and then brought to term. But “therapeutic cloning,” which involves creating embryos in a petri dish, letting them grow just long enough to extract stem cells, and then killing them, is being hailed as a morally acceptable—nay, laudable—step forward for what is inevitably referred to as “scientific progress.”
Trumpeting the scientific breakthroughs that might accompany such research—cures for Parkinson’s! For Alzheimer’s! For diabetes! For mortality itself!—the usual voices are clamoring for a limited ban on reproductive cloning, accompanied by increased government oversight and support for the “therapeutic” variety. These forward-looking types—The New York Times and the Washington Post, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the pharmaceutical companies who stand to make a killing, quite literally—envision a world where it will be perfectly legal to clone as many human embryos as you like, so long as you don’t let them live.
In other words, for the first time in our history we will have enshrined in law a class of human beings—cloned embryos—who it is illegal not to kill. Even the moral idiocy of our country’s abortion law, which permits the slaughter of fetuses (or the “elimination of the unwanted tissue,” for those who find refuge in euphemism) at any time and for any reason, cannot quite compare to this. Under the rules set down by Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, American women and their doctors are allowed to kill unborn human beings. Under the rules proposed by those who hope to ban reproductive cloning while allowing the “therapeutic” variety, American researchers will be required to kill unborn human beings—by the hundred and hundreds of thousands, eventually.
The predictable response to this, of course, is the claim that 16-celled—or eight-celled, or whatever number seems sufficiently small—embryos are not human beings at all. After all, we are told repeatedly, they are just a “clump of cells,” and killing them is no different from disposing of a patch of dry skin or clipping your toenails. Besides, they’re in petri dishes, and what kind of human beings live in petri dishes? Not you or I, certainly. Embryos don’t have feelings, they aren’t self-conscious, and they certainly don’t have cute little faces—ergo, they aren’t human, and so there’s no moral difficulty in treating them as commodities, rather than people.
This is unscientific rubbish, of course—myth masquerading as reason, and sentiment pretending to be philosophy. Foes of cloning (and of abortion, further down the line) are often accused of being irrational, of basing their morality on religious dogma rather than hard evidence. But which point of view, one wonders, is more irrational—the view that an individual and unique homo sapiens comes into existence at conception (it does—ask any scientist), or the view that embryos only “become human” when they leave the petri dish and are implanted in the uterus? What exactly is the magic of location, anyway?
From a purely scientific perspective, in the end, the fact that an eight-celled embryo is really tiny and doesn’t look like you makes no difference at all. That embryo is you, right down to the last chromosome—you at three days old, or three hours. Before conception, you did not exist; after conception, you did. Anything else is simply superstition.
The more intellectually honest defenders of “therapeutic cloning” will admit to this and acknowledge that an embryo is technically a human being. But merely being human, they argue, is not enough to make one a “person,” and not enough to guarantee one legal protection under our constitutional order. Rather, only a human being with certain characteristics—say, self-awareness or the ability to reason—can be legitimately afforded the protection of the laws. And since an embryo is clearly not self-aware (or whatever standard you prefer), it fails the test of personhood and can be killed with impunity.
The difficulty with this argument, however, is that every definition of personhood—save the basic biological one—breaks down upon careful inspection. An embryo isn’t self-aware, sure, but neither is a 13-year-old boy in a coma. Can we kill him without qualm or sanction? An embryo can’t feel pain, admittedly—but if you give me enough drugs, neither can I. Do we excuse a murderer who first administers a merciful dose of morphine? An embryo can’t survive on its own, doubtless—but neither can a toddler or an elderly invalid. Are they fair game for scientific research? An embryo is assuredly incapable of reason—but so is any newborn. Do we countenance infanticide?
This is not a slippery slope argument. Cloning embryos only to kill them is not wrong because it might lead to infanticide. It is wrong in and of itself, because it establishes a vast and invisible class of human beings who will be manufactured, dissected and slaughtered in the hopes of extending our own, safely non-embryonic lives. It is wrong because it is barbaric, brutal and inhuman. It is wrong for all the reasons that murder is wrong and more—and should be just as illegal.
But then, so is abortion. And we’ve learned to live with that.
Ross G. Douthat ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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