As Raymond Barglow's and Jeremy Rifkin's articles demonstrate,
thoughtful people of good conscience and progressive politics
may come to different conclusions about human embryo cloning.
Rifkin, along with other progressives, believes that embryo
cloning could open the door to a high-tech eugenics controlled
and promoted by biotechnology corporations. He points also to
the health risks to the women who would have to donate the millions
of eggs that therapies involving embryo cloning would require.
Based on these misgivings, Rifkin supports a permanent ban on
all kinds of human cloning.
Barglow, along with other progressives, emphasizes the role
that embryo cloning may someday play in medical treatments that
would use embryonic stem cells to regenerate damaged tissues
and organs. Based on his hopes for "research that may aid
so many millions of people who are afflicted by debilitating
diseases," he is dismayed at Rifkin's stance.
And many people, progressives and others, are confused: pulled
by both the hopes and dangers, tentative in their understanding
of the underlying technical facts and political agendas, put
off by the polarized tone of the embryo cloning debate.
The contradictory pulls in the embryo cloning controversy are
perhaps especially troubling for Jews. Half a century after
the Holocaust, most Jews remain viscerally sensitive to the
horrors of a eugenic world view. Yet the Jewish tradition is
particularly enthusiastic in its support for healing, medical
innovation, and scientific knowledge.
What's the best way forward? How can we prevent a "techno-eugenic"
future while encouraging research on promising new medical treatments?
The Politics of the New Human Genetic Technologies
I began paying attention to these sorts of questions several
years ago, after reading Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver's
notorious account of the new human genetic and reproductive
technologies in Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave
New World. Silver enthusiastically predicts that well-off parents
will one day soon choose their children's DNA from a biotech
catalog. This new market-based mode of childbearing is inevitable,
he says, and will lead to the emergence first of genetic castes,
which he dubs the "GenRich" and the "Naturals,"
and thereafter of separate human species.
At first I assumed that Silver was merely indulging in a bit
of mad-scientist headline grabbing. When I learned that his
vision of a "post-human" future is shared-and being
publicly promoted-by a disturbing number of other mainstream
scientists, bioethicists, pundits, and biotech entrepreneurs,
I began to look for the progressive response. I expected some
combination of alarm, sharp analysis, outrage, and ridicule.
I found all that, but far less of it than I'd expected. Meanwhile,
new genetic and reproductive technologies were burgeoning, biotech
startups were raking in investment capital, and an extreme techno-libertarian
ideology was taking root.
Before long, however, a growing network of progressives—scholars,
scientists, advocates of environmental protection, women's health,
human rights, disability rights, civil rights, and indigenous
rights—did begin to mobilize around the threat of the new
techno-eugenics. Our work had just gotten underway when the
controversy about embryo cloning erupted, forcing us to engage
a divisive issue of secondary concern rather than remaining
focused on a unifying issue of primary concern.
For the most part, the national conversation about embryo cloning
has been dangerously incompletely. It has polarized between
religious conservatives who want to ban it permanently, regardless
of any medical potential, and biomedical researchers who want
an immediate green light, regardless of the eugenic and other
risks that unrestricted embryo cloning would pose. Though neither
Rifkin nor Barglow belong in either of these camps, I find both
their positions unsatisfying as well.
I wholeheartedly share Rifkin's apprehension about embryo cloning
and a new eugenics, though as I explain below I'd emphasize
the technical and ideological connections as much as the financial
ones on which he rests his case. But I differ with his call
for an immediate permanent ban on embryo cloning.
I am very skeptical about Barglow's enthusiasm for embryo cloning.
Many of the widely repeated claims about its medical promise
are highly exaggerated. They are based far more on the search
for venture capital than on any scientific findings. Yet I would
support research on embryo cloning if it were done with the
kind of regulatory oversight Barglow endorses. What Barglow
doesn't mention or doesn't realize, however, is that the UK-style
regulations he describes are aggressively opposed by many of
the researchers and their allies who back the pro-embryo cloning
legislation now being considered by Congress. We've proposed
a temporary moratorium on embryo cloning to allow time for effective
regulations to be put in place, but to date this alternative
has not found a Congressional sponsor.
For better or worse, the embryo cloning controversy has set
the stage for other debates that will soon be upon us. If only
for that reason, it's worth grappling with its technical and
Evaluating the Medical Potential of Embryo Cloning
Stem cells are the undifferentiated cells that give rise to
the many specialized tissues in the human body. Adult stem cells
are found in particular parts of the body, some capable of developing
into several kinds of specialized cells.
Embryonic stem cells (ES cells), found in early-stage embryos,
are believed to be capable of developing into every other kind
of cell. They are more flexible than adult stem cells and easier
to isolate. But their medical potential is complicated by two
problems: first, they often cause tumors in animal models; second,
they would probably have to be individually tailored to match
the immune system characteristics of each patient.
Embryo cloning has been proposed as a way to solve the immune
rejection problem. ES cells derived from embryos that had been
cloned from a patient's own body would theoretically be immunologically
compatible with the patient.
This prospect continues to inspire impassioned support. But
it is unlikely ever to be practically feasible because of the
cost and difficulty of cloning embryos for each patient, and
of obtaining human eggs in the large numbers that would be necessary.
According to a report last year in Nature, "many experts
do not now expect therapeutic cloning to have a large clinical
impact" (Peter Aldhous, "Can They Rebuild Us?,"
April 5, 2001). A recent story in the Los Angeles Times business
section puts this conclusion in dollars-and-cents terms. The
article, titled "Clone Profit? Unlikely" (May 10,
2002) quotes several top biotech executives on embryo cloning.
"It is not commercially viable," said one. It's a
"non-starter, commercially," said another.
Embryo cloning is at present a speculative rather than demonstrated
component of ES cell therapies. And research on ES cell therapies
is itself preliminary. In fact, these are still early days for
both adult stem and ES cell research: No one knows just how
much medical value either will turn out to have.
It is certainly reasonable to argue that research on both kinds
of stem cells should move forward. But here's a point that's
often overlooked: ES cell research could proceed for some time
without embryo cloning, because ES cells could be derived from
embryos originally produced for in vitro fertilization procedures.
Support for ES cell research can and does coexist with deep
wariness about embryo cloning.
Embryo Cloning and Eugenic Engineering: What's the Connection?
In all the commentary about human cloning, few have noticed
the most significant threat it poses: Embryo cloning is the
technology that would make the creation of eugenically engineered
"designer babies" commercially feasible.
The process of producing a genetically redesigned child would
involve creating an embryo through in vitro fertilization, culturing
ES cells derived from it to provide a sufficient population
for the tricky task of inserting genes, and then extracting
the nucleus of a successfully altered cell to construct a cloned
embryo. The resulting child would not be a clone: He or she
would have developed from a cell derived from an embryo created
with an egg and a sperm, and "improved" in the laboratory.
The altered genes
would be present in every cell of the child's body, and would
be passed down to any and all future generations. [see illustration]
Many people assume that this kind of genetic manipulation-often
called "inheritable genetic modification"-is necessary
in order for parents who carry a gene associated with diseases
such as Tay Sachs or cystic fibrosis to avoid passing it on
to their children. This is not the case, and those who say it
is are mistaken or intending to mislead. Using already available
screening techniques, parents at risk of having children with
serious genetic diseases like these can select embryos unaffected
by the condition.
Embryo selection, or "pre-implantation genetic diagnosis,"
is itself subject to abuse, and in need of strong regulation.
Many disability rights activists argue that it is being used
in a misguided search for "perfect" babies, and many
feminists voice concern about its use to satisfy "gender
preference." But allowing parents to select from among
several embryos for serious medical reasons would have far lesser
eugenic implications than would a consumer-based dynamic of
"improving" future children by genetic manipulation.
This little-remarked technical relationship between embryo
cloning and inheritable genetic is a red flag. In the absence
of effective regulation, it is very worrisome. And it is truly
alarming in light of the ongoing efforts of noted scientists,
authors and others to make eugenic engineering seem both alluring
Is a New Eugenics a Serious Concern?
How seriously should we treat predictions of the inevitable
emergence of a genetic elite and "post-human" species?
We can hope that technical unreliability will block those who
would like to endow future children with manipulated genes or
artificial chromosomes. But transgenic animals-goats that secrete
spider silk in their milk, rabbits that glow in the dark-are
routine. And even if "GenRich"-type alterations remain
beyond technical reach, the ideological impact of promoting
them is dangerously powerful.
Marketing the ability to specify our children's appearance
and abilities encourages a grotesque consumerist mentality toward
children and all human life. Fostering the notion that only
a "perfect baby" is worthy of life threatens our solidarity
with and support for the disabled, and perpetuates unattainable
standards of perfection. Channeling hopes for human betterment
into preoccupation with genetic fixes shrinks our already withered
commitments to improving social conditions and enriching cultural
and community life. Promoting a future of genetically engineered
inequality legitimizes the vast existing injustices that are
socially arranged and enforced.
Most advocates of eugenic engineering realize that their project
all too easily triggers concerns like these, and evokes associations
with Nazi racism and genocide. They counter that while the Nazis'
methods were pernicious, and while governmental coercion must
of course be avoided, the new eugenics would emerge out of the
voluntary choices of parents-to-be who had concluded that pre-selecting
their offspring's genes would give their children the best start
This consumer's view of eugenics lends itself to the claim
that designing a baby is an "individual right." But
rights are always socially negotiated-not long ago, slave owning
and marital rape were counted among them. And the value we properly
place on individual liberty must always be balanced against
our commitments to social justice and solidarity. Changing a
future child's genetic makeup, and experimenting with the genetic
legacy of humanity, fall outside any acceptable notion of individual
rights or parental prerogative.
The advocates of eugenic engineering are on equally shaky ground
when they assert—as in titles such as Children of Choice
and From Chance to Choice—that manipulating a future child's
genes is a "reproductive choice." Terminating an unwanted
pregnancy is very different from determining the genetic constitution
of a future child.
Also suspect are claims that restrictions on inheritable genetic
modification and reproductive cloning would trample scientific
freedom. The capacity to manipulate the genes we pass on to
our children carries social and political risks as momentous
as those posed by any technology humanity has yet developed.
Surely such a world-shaping technology is a proper subject for
A Solution to the Impasse?
At the moment it appears unlikely that Congress will pass any
cloning legislation in the current session, in spite of nearly
universal professions of support for a ban on reproductive cloning.
This would leave us with no legislative protection against even
the "cowboy cloners" who say they are about to produce
cloned babies. It would put the U.S. at odds with the dozens
of countries-the 41 nations of the Council of Europe, along
with India, Peru, South Africa, and others-that have already
adopted bans on both reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic
modification. And it would be a setback for efforts just getting
underway in the United Nations to draft a global convention
banning reproductive cloning.
What is to be done? Let's look at the big picture. We believe
that that there is widespread support, domestically and internationally,
for responsible governance of the new human genetic and reproductive
First, reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification
should be banned. These technologies serve no overriding positive
purpose, and open the door to a potentially catastrophic eugenic
Second, we need responsible, accountable regulation of other
new human genetic and reproductive technologies, including embryo
cloning, pre-natal and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and
Third, we need a commitment to the active development and equitable
distribution of applications of genetic technologies that can
help prevent disease and alleviate suffering.
Domestically and immediately, there is a pressing need for
a good-faith efforts to begin establishing responsible and accountable
regulation of the new human genetic and reproductive technologies.
Towards these ends, the kind of regulatory structure that Barglow
describes, based on the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology
Act (HFEA), is precisely what we have in mind. We invite Barglow,
Rifkin, and others to work with us to build wide support for
establishing such a mechanism in the U.S.
In the heat of Congressional debate over cloning, which has
been framed as a contest between Christian conservatives who
want to stop medical progress and liberals who want to save
dying children, some have come close to suggesting that the
"progressive" position would be to affirm the right
of the biotechnology industry to do whatever it wants, as fast
as it can, under as few regulatory constraints as possible.
Such a position is untenable enough under any circumstances.
When the issue at hand involves technologies that could unleash
a new high-tech eugenics upon the world, it is perilous.
Decisions about how and where to draw political and policy
lines around the new human genetic and reproductive technologies
are decisions about the future of humanity. They must not be
left to those committed to grotesque visions of a "post-human"
future, or with financial or professional stakes in particular
procedures. We must ensure that the new human genetic technologies
are used to advance health and well-being for all, and not hijacked
in the service of a dangerous new eugenics.
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