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> Columns > Boston Globe > The Morality of Cloning

The Morality of Cloning

By Cathy Young | May 27, 2002

The debate over the promises and perils of biotechnology is causing strange political mutations. On the political right, there is acrimonious division between libertarians and cultural conservatives; meanwhile, right-wing traditionalists find themselves allied with left-wing anticapitalist Luddites. The latest focus of this debate is the congressional bill, overwhelmingly passed by the house last year and now pending before the Senate, which would outlaw not just the cloning of human babies but the cloning of human cells and the use of any medical treatments developed through this technique in countries where it is legal.

The anticloning bill is a dangerous exercise in panic-mongering that could retard or foreclose lifesaving advances in medicine. Nevertheless, critics of cloning and genetic engineering have valid concerns, some of them outlined in Francis Fukuyama's book "Our Posthuman Future," that libertarian champions of biotechnology would do well to acknowledge if they are to prevail in this debate. For now, mammalian genetic engineering is at, well, an embryonic stage. Although the human genome has been mapped, scientists are very far from exact knowledge of which genes affect which traits, under what circumstances, and in what combination.

But suppose in the future science did acquire the ability to "customize" a human baby - to produce not only the desired height or eye color but such characteristics as sensitivity or competitiveness, artistic or mathematical gifts. When one considers such a scenario, anxiety about the damage to our sense of humanity is harder to dismiss.

What happens to our notions of self-determination if people become, as the Russian communists used to say in a very different context, "human material"? What happens to the belief in individual freedom if individuality can be reduced to a software program written by other people, if an "engineer of human souls" is not just Stalin's chilling term for a writer but an actual job description? What happens if we lose any notion of the human soul, not as a theistic concept but as a notion of some inviolable core of self?

One could argue that genetic engineering would not diminish freedom; human behavior and personality would be shaped by DNA just as it ever was, only more visibly. But it does make a difference whether these characteristics are produced by chance or by human design - just as there is a fundamental difference between teaching your child to be friendly and giving him extra niceness genes.

There are other disturbing implications. One need not be a radical egalitarian to be troubled by the prospect of a society in which the affluent can add genetic enhancement to their children's advantages while the have-nots fall further behind. Americans accept inequality of outcomes because they believe in merit and equality of opportunity. If these concepts become obsolete, we can expect a groundswell of resentment - and a push for the government to foot the bill for prenatal "Head Start."

The libertarian argument is that parents should be free to choose what's best for children. But if genetic enhancement becomes commonplace, will people face pressures to make the "right" decisions about their children's DNA? Suppose genetic intervention can minimize the chances of antisocial behavior, and some parents refused to take advantage of it. If their child goes on to commit a crime, could they be charged with negligence?

None of this is to suggest that research on human genetic engineering ought to be banned or restricted by law, unless it endangers research subjects. For one, gene therapy targeting various diseases could alleviate much human suffering. If it can make inroads against Alzheimer's, for instance, millions will be saved from the cruelest loss of individuality and identity. This is a potential that some biotechnology foes brush aside in a shockingly high-handed manner. Thus, columnist George Will has mocked the "desiccated utilitarianism" which holds that "if something reduces an individual's suffering or improves an individual's well-being, it should be done."

But some proponents of unfettered science, such as Rutgers mathematics professor Norman Levitt, can sound just as cavalier when they deride a supposedly outdated "spiritualized view" of the human soul.

One of the paradoxes of life is that even beneficial changes often have a downside. Opposition to government bans on morally problematic uses of biotechnology should not foreclose a vigorous debate about moral issues, or even a voluntary decision by scientists not to go down certain paths. The prudent exercise of moral judgment - such as a stigma against any genetic alteration that amounts to tampering with the self - may be the best way to forestall intrusive laws.

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