Americans to Ban Cloning

Human Cloning: Our Best Chance to Put Biotechnology In Its Place

Date: 12/04/2001

ACT’s Challenge to Human Dignity and Public Policy

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Ph.D.
Dean, The Wilberforce Forum
Director, Council for Biotechnology Policy
Founding Editor, Ethics & Medicine

Advanced Cell Technology’s announcement of the first experimental human cloning tells us a great deal about biotechnology and its industry. For a start, it was carefully orchestrated for the Sunday following Thanksgiving, and timed for simultaneous publication in professional journals and a news magazine – with slick public relations skill and an extraordinary combination of planning and secrecy. An “ethics committee” was reported to have completed its due diligence and signed off on the venture. Fresh language had been coined to offer maximum cover for the exercise (for example, a clonal embryo is now, we are told, merely an “activated egg;” this is “cellular life,” not human life; etc.).

And moreover, the announcement was scheduled to be followed two days later by consideration in the House of Representatives of a “sense of the House” motion that heaped entirely uncritical praise on biotechnology and its industry – intended to gain the support of the same House that in July voted 267-162 to ban exactly what ACT had achieved.

Without doubt, Advanced Cell Technology, and its trade group BIO (the Biotechnology Industry Organization), deserve our admiration. Never before have public relations, ethics, language, technology, the legislature and the calendar been so carefully orchestrated in the interests of private profit, and to the detriment of the public good.

Yet cloning continues to offer us our best opportunity to grapple with the fundamental issues raised by biotechnology, and if for that reason alone we should be grateful to the Scottish veterinary scientists who invented it and gave us Dolly, doyenne of sheep. It focuses the potential of biotechnology to cause harm as well as good to humankind. It raises the Frankenstein specter in modern garb: science and technology, however well-intentioned, biting the hand that feeds it and undermining the dignity of our human being at the same time as setting out to serve us – so according to one recent poll, well over 80% of Americans find cloning embryos for experimentation as repugnant as they do cloning them for live birth. And in doing so it announces a rather obvious principle: that “biotechnology” is in itself neither good or bad; it all depends. The question is, depends on what?

The plain implication of ACT’s apologia for clonal embryo experiments is that it depends on the end to which it is being put. If that end is, or includes, remedies for disease, then the technology is said to be justified. The degree to which this simple argument resonates with the media and the public should perhaps be a cause for major concern, since it is evidently the case statement that biotech focus groups have advised it and every other biotech company to make. Of course, it is acknowledged that the means employed need to fit “ethical” guidelines of some kind, but they can include not only the cloning itself and subsequent destruction of the resulting embryos, but payment of between $3,000 and $5,000 each for eggs culled from women whose financial need left them susceptible to such use. This subordination of means to ends is reprehensible. For the means need to be as ethical as the end. And however worthy the end may be, without transparently ethical means, the simple reiteration that the process is intended to help the sick (as well as, of course, the bottom line) is nothing more than an admission of moral ambiguity. There is no question that the ends of the Nazi human experiments were noble.

Of equal interest to the ethical debate itself are its participants. For as cloning and the developing biotech agenda have begun to clarify as ethical and policy issues, a remarkable coalition is emerging to debate them. At a packed press conference in the Senate the day after the ACT announcement, voices from right and left of the political spectrum, pro-life and pro-choice, Catholic, conservative Protestant and mainline – all joined together to call on the Senate to pass the Brownback-Weldon comprehensive ban on human cloning. Pro-life leaders such as Richard Doerflinger (who represents the Catholic bishops) and Douglas Johnson (Right to Life) spoke in harmony with Friends of the Earth President Brent Walter and (prochoice) United Methodist spokesman Jaydee Hanson. All agreed that manufacturing clonal human embryos, whether for experimentation or implantation, was unethical and should be stopped by law. A call was issued for leadership to be shown in the international community. One speaker after another set the cloning question in the context of the broader biotech agenda.

This emerging coalition of environmental and feminist progressives, and Christian and other conservatives, together with mainline religionists like the United Methodists, is set to be more than a flash in the co-belligerent pan. For while each group keeps its distinctives, there is a growing recognition that they are not simply married by convenience, but share major common values – especially in their embrace of human dignity and their determination to set the biotech agenda squarely within a “humanism” that is common to Christians, Jews, and secularists who treasure our humanity.

As the broad biotech agenda unfolds, these bedfellows will keep finding common cause on issues as diverse as germline (inheritable) genetic changes, gene patents, genetic discrimination, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology – as well as cloning. For each of these issues raises fundamental threats to our common dignity as human beings. And those who treasure that dignity, though we may disagree about many issues (such as abortion), now find we have an extraordinary opportunity to work together, giving voice to the hopes and repugnances of our generation, in ensuring that biotechnology serves the dignity of human being, and not the other way around.