A Massachusetts firm has announced the first successful cloning of human embryos. The company believes that cloning human cells will accelerate the development of new treatments for Parkinson's disease, ALS, diabetes, AIDS, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's disease and numerous other maladies.
That may be true, but the downside is ominous. Cloning human cells could quickly lead to cloning humans.
Human cloning will erode any latent respect for what was once regarded as the intrinsic value of human life. It will catapult us toward what Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of President Bush's new council on bioethics, has called a "post-human future."
Last weekend, two Democratic senators who have consistently opposed all attempts to limit abortion, said they oppose human cloning. Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont are a little late. Having previously argued that the unborn have no basic right to live at any stage of development, they cannot credibly oppose their cloning. Sen. Richard Durban, D-Ill., said Sunday that it will be difficult for Congress to resist a parade of the sick and lame who will lobby Congress not to ban cloning in hopes that the procedure might improve their lives.
Where is all of this leading? Will anyone say? Can anyone say for sure? In congressional testimony last June, Dr. Kass said, "Anyone truly serious about preventing human reproductive cloning must seek to stop the process from the beginning, at the stage where the human somatic cell nucleus is introduced into the egg." The House of Representatives has passed legislation prohibiting such cloning, but the Senate has yet to act.
On Monday, President Bush said that cloning humans is "morally wrong, in my opinion" and "We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it." But morality is more than one man's opinion or it used to be. Haven't we been legally destroying human life for nearly 30 years in a procedure called abortion, mostly for the convenience of inconveniently pregnant women? Abortion supporters will find it difficult to credibly oppose cloning. Having weakened protection for the unborn, they cannot now protest new efforts to dehumanize them.
One of the problems in the debate about the value of human life is that it has come up against individual rights, including the right to feel good. The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity notes in the latest edition of its newsletter, "Dignity": "There are far-reaching implications of cloning for the human society," but because we now focus only on the individual, it has become more difficult to see the consequences for society and our collective future.
For example, it is now deemed a "right" to have a child whose DNA matches that of the adults. Dr. Kass has challenged that "right," saying that a legal precedent for such a right does not exist and that the idea of creating a child via cloning must be attacked, though with compassion. The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity brings up another important moral question in its newsletter: "If a woman's college-age son a clone of her husband reminded her of her spouse at the time she first fell in love with him, serious relational and marital problems might arise within the family." In Dr. Kass's words, "Turning the world upside down to make sure that (a few couples) can have a genetically-related child is not sensible."
Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, a bioethicist and cancer researcher at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., believes that cloning humans has enormous implications for our concept of freedom. He told "Dignity" (www.cbhd.org): "When we attempt to control all the various elements of our lives to the extent that this ... technology seems to indicate, we have in a sense chosen to relinquish some of that freedom (whether we are successful or not). We can no longer now be the creatures that we were before."
In an April interview with "Dignity," Kass noted: "There are ... people who care about what it means to be a human being not in some kind of technical, philosophical sense but (because) they recognize threats to the things that they hold humanly dear."
Not so much, these days. Our inattention to such things brought us abortion. Other threats to our humanity, like cloning, will be nearly impossible to stop. That's because to stop it, one must be able to appeal to a moral absolute, which was jettisoned before many people reading this were born.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.