The recent success of Oregon researchers in cloning monkey embryos and from them culling stem cells increases urgency for clear thinking about everything that primate cloning implies.Lead investigator, Shoukrat Mitalipov, reports that he is “quite sure it will work in humans” and enthusiasts quickly jump to the elusive promise of cures to justify this research agenda.Less well appreciated is the specter of a new eugenics.Consider, for example, Harvard Professor Michael Sandel’s recent book, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.
Sandel argues that pursuing perfection through genetic enhancement could undermine equality, democracy, and community. He warns, correctly, that changing our nature to fit the world rather than the other way around is an ethical defeat that “deadens the impulse for social and political improvement." Sandel is to be commended for bringing attention to the problematic aspects of developing genetic technologies and, particularly, for reminding readers about the central role that progressives played in fostering the early 20th century eugenics movement.He is rightly concerned that new genetic technologies will be used for ultimately horrifying non-medical purposes. But, unfortunately, Sandel also relates that he supports embryonic stem cell (ESC) research.Stated without qualification, his support presumably extends to the cloning version of ESC research -- the gateway technology to human genetic engineering.As Ian Wilmot, who helped clone the sheep, Dolly, explains: cloning is “a means by which to realize the potential of genetic engineering.”By not calling for any limits on scientific development, Sandel’s position will make inevitable the market eugenics he seeks to avoid.
If critics want to do more than intellectual hand-wringing, they must take a clear position on where to draw the line when supporting scientific intervention in the manufacture and manipulation of human life.Progressives have refused to draw that line at experimentation on the embryo.This is due, in part, to the legitimate fear of undermining abortion rights by reinforcing the sanctity of the embryo. But the costs of this refusal will be steep if we don’t draw the line somewhere. The distinction between research on existing embryos (i.e. the unused “leftovers” of infertility procedures,) on the one hand, and the corporate creation of clonal embryos, on the other, is exactly where progressives should draw the line.
There are many paths to healing; perhaps the most impractical, expensive, and unsustainable is through the cloning of embryos.The Oregon researchers used over 300 eggs from 14 female monkeys.They ended up with two lines of stem cells, one with an abnormal Y chromosome.In addition to the looming social hazards accompanying human genetic engineering, cloning will require untold thousands of women’s eggs – cloning’s “raw material.”Sparing women the substantial risks of egg harvesting is, in and of itself, a good reason to decline engaging this research.To stave off criticism, science-entrepreneurs have made numerous attempts to hide the fact that they are promoting human cloning. These include lumping all forms of stem cell research under one label, promoting use of the term “somatic cell nuclear transfer” (SCNT) instead of “cloning”, insisting on using Orwellian terms such as“therapeutic cloning” – knowing that no therapies exist, and creating a counterfeit distinction between cloning for research and cloning for reproduction.The infertility industry has perfected taking embryos from petri dishes to full-term, and there are mainstream bioethicists who see nothing wrong with bringing clones to full term.It is naïve to believe that research cloning will not usher in the age of reproductive cloning and with it the latest in “techno-eugenics.”
As long as progressives fail to acknowledge the cloning agenda of stem cell research, Sandel’s worst fears about eugenics cannot but be borne out.Embryo cloning is the logical place for us to say “enough.” To do otherwise, is to fuel the “yuppie eugenics” that cell biologists Ruth Hubbard and Stuart Newman predict will be the inevitable product of modern molecular genetics merged with reproductive choice in an unregulated capitalist economy.
Diane Beeson and M. L. Tina Stevens are founding members of Alliance for Humane Biotechnology