More MS news articles for Aug 2001

The House Was Right To Ban Cloning

August 2, 2001
By Francis Fukuyama. Mr. Fukuyama, a professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is writing a book on the politics of biotechnology.

On Tuesday, the House passed by a vote of 265-162 a bill sponsored by Rep. David Weldon of Florida -- and supported by the Bush administration -- that would ban all types of human cloning. The measure now goes to the Senate, where many observers believe it will be quietly killed as a result of opposition from the biotech industry. It should not be, as the bill sets an important precedent for the way our democratic political community approaches biotechnology.

Casual observers of this debate may be excused for any confusion over what's at stake. Press reports of the cloning bill imply that it is part of the stem-cell issue, over which the Bush administration has been lobbied intensively the past month. But while there is a relationship between cloning and stem cells, these are two distinct questions, and it is possible to be in favor of stem-cell research (as I am) while also supporting the complete ban on cloning human embryos.

There are two types of human cloning at issue -- reproductive cloning, which involves the creation of a child, and so-called therapeutic or research cloning of human embryos, which are ultimately destined for destruction. (Therapeutic cloning is not, needless to say, very therapeutic for the embryo.) There is surprisingly broad agreement on Capitol Hill that reproductive cloning ought to be banned. The real fight is over whether biotech firms should be permitted to produce new human embryos and clone them for research purposes (including, but not limited to, the extraction of stem cells).

There have been two bills under consideration in the House. One was the Weldon measure passed this week that would ban both types of cloning; the other was a bill sponsored by Rep. James Greenwood that would ban reproductive cloning but effectively legalize research cloning. In the past month, a biotech firm, Advanced Cell Technology, announced that it has undertaken a project to clone human embryos in a manner that would be made illegal under the Weldon bill.

There are any number of reasons to ban reproductive cloning. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which looked at this issue after the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1997, could only come up with one, which was that reproductive cloning could not now be done safely. While this is a serious consideration (current animal experiments continue to produce highly deformed clones), it is probably the least important, since the technical issue of safety is ultimately likely to be solved.

The real problem is that human cloning constitutes the opening wedge for human genetic engineering, a eugenic future in which parents will be able to design their children's characteristics. Cloning itself will create a highly unnatural and unhealthy relationship between parent and child. While it is possible to construct sympathetic scenarios in which a parent might want to clone, say, a dead child, it is very difficult to see how it suits the cloned offspring's interests. As in other areas of reproductive law, cloning advocates pay more attention to the interests of parents than of children.

The existing consensus on banning reproductive cloning has failed to produce legislation thus far, however, because of disagreement over the legitimacy of research cloning. Biotech industry advocates argue that cloned embryos will be an unending source of stem cells, and that they will make possible the regeneration of tissues and organs and cures for many diseases. They would make possible the regeneration of a person's own tissues and organs, which would not be rejected by the immune system as those from other donors are today. In this respect, research cloning does overlap with the ongoing stem-cell debate.

But if the Bush administration decides to lift the current ban on stem-cell research, it would permit the use, under proposed National Institutes of Health guidelines, only of embryos that had already been slated for destruction in in-vitro fertilization clinics. This has been one of the most powerful arguments for lifting the ban. What advocates of research cloning want to do is to produce from scratch multiple copies of entirely new embryos, only to use and discard them for their stem cells.

You do not have to be an opponent of abortion, or believe that an embryo has the moral status of an infant, to see that this goes much further down the road toward the manufacture of human beings than anything discussed in the stem-cell debate. Many people do not consider embryos to be human beings, but they are also not just another cell or bit of tissue. Research cloning would get us accustomed to the idea that human life in its early stages should be treated like any other pharmaceutical product.

There are other important reasons for a total ban. As bioethicist Leon Kass has pointed out, it will be impossible to enforce a ban on reproductive cloning once research cloning is permitted. When labs and clinics are able to produce and duplicate embryos at will, it will be virtually impossible to monitor what becomes of them. And if they end up in the womb of a woman, what public authority will force her to have an abortion or prosecute her for bringing the baby to term?

There is today a great deal of fatalism about the march of technology. It is conventional wisdom that innovation cannot, and therefore should not, be stopped. Others argue that something like a ban on cloning would be rendered ineffective by the fact that we live in a globalized world in which any attempt to regulate technology by sovereign nation-states can easily be sidestepped by moving to another jurisdiction.

None of these arguments holds water. There are many dangerous or controversial technologies, including nuclear weapons and power, ballistic missiles, biological and chemical warfare agents, replacement human-body parts, or neuropharmacological drugs, which cannot be freely developed or traded internationally. We have successfully regulated experimentation on human subjects for many decades, and in fact are in the process of tightening those rules.

Internationally, the Council of Europe has already passed a ban on cloning, while 24 countries to date (including Germany, France, Italy and Japan) have enacted national bans on cloning. The U.S. can do a great deal to either reinforce (or else undermine) an emerging international consensus that human cloning is an unacceptable use of medical technology.

In the future, blanket bans on broad areas of biomedical research will not work because many future biotechnologies will mix clear benefits with subtle harms in complex ways. For this, a regulatory model is needed. But a broad ban is appropriate in the case of human cloning because it is necessary to establish at an early point the principle that our democratic community has the authority and power to make science the servant of human ends rather than their master.