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Genetic Crossroads
April 30th, 2002

As the U.S. Senate nears a vote on human cloning, an increasingly polarized debate about cloning embryos for research is threatening to block legislative action that would ban the production of full-term human clones. At the same time, the terms and tenor of the controversy are obscuring public understanding of the social implications of cloning technology, including its potential for opening the door to a new eugenics.

The debate about embryo cloning has largely pitted "the status of human embryos" against "medical progress." Two well-organized and well-funded constituencies dominate this debate: conservative anti-abortion forces that oppose any legislation that allows embryo cloning, and biomedical/biotech interests that oppose any legislation that bans embryo cloning.

Congressional consideration of cloning legislation could easily end in a stalemate. Proposals by pro-choice progressives and liberals for alternative policies that would impose strong controls on embryo cloning but not ban it, or a moratorium until such controls are devised and the need for embryo cloning confirmed, have begun to receive attention. But in the absence of politically influential constituencies advocating such alternatives, most legislators can be expected to support one or the other of the polarized positions now on the table.

These developments are dangerous in a way that goes well beyond the current Congressional struggle. If forced to choose between the positions advocated by the two active camps, many liberals, progressives and moderates who would otherwise support governmental regulation and control would throw in their lot with the biotechnology industry before they align themselves with a position favored by the anti-abortion religious right.

It would be tragic if the newly emerging politics of human genetic modification were abandoned to conservatives in this manner. The great majority of liberals and progressives would oppose a resurgent eugenics that introduces new forms of discrimination and injustice. And most liberals and progressives understand the need for societal controls over powerful technologies.

The next few years will be a critical period for preventing new eugenic and "post-human" technologies and philosophies from taking root. We will need to craft responsible policies, alert key constituencies, build cultural momentum, and create a progressive politics committed to a future of genetic justice.


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