Bush's mutant cloning report.

Bush's mutant cloning report.

Bush's mutant cloning report.

Politics and policy.
July 16 2002 7:01 PM

Bush's Mutant Cloning Report

The political manipulation of Bush's bioethics council.

Last Thursday, the President's Council on Bioethics released its report on human cloning. The council unanimously endorsed a ban on cloning to produce children. As to cloning for scientific research, the report said the council's "majority recommendation" was to impose a four-year moratorium on that practice rather than to permit it with regulation. An administration official told the New York Times that the report was "consistent with the president's core view, which is that all human cloning is wrong and should not be authorized."

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Not true. Like a bad genetic copy of a bad genetic copy, the officially advertised account of the cloning report is a double distortion. The report oversimplifies the views of the council members, and the White House oversimplifies the report. Most council members don't share Bush's conviction that research cloning should be forbidden. Nor do they prefer a moratorium to permitting and regulating such cloning. The mistranslation of their beliefs as an affirmation of Bush's position is a lesson in the pervasiveness of politics, even among ethicists and scientists who purport to disdain it.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

According to the report's executive summary, 10 of the council's 17 active members prefer a moratorium to regulation. It's true that the council drafted one proposal focusing on a moratorium and another proposal focusing on regulation. It's true that 10 members endorsed the first proposal and only seven endorsed the second. But it's just as evident, from transcripts of the council's proceedings, that some members of the "majority" wanted to regulate research cloning, not ban it, and that they endorsed the first proposal as a means to develop such regulations.

On June 20, the last time the council convened to debate policy options, three council members—Francis Fukuyama, Rebecca Dresser, and Paul McHugh—made clear their ambivalence. Fukuyama preferred the regulatory proposal, saying he favored a moratorium only "to put into place a regulatory, you know, apparatus." Dresser said she had "difficulty seeing differences" between the moratorium proposal and the regulatory proposal since regulations could "demand an exceptionally compelling showing of necessity before something would be allowed to go forward." McHugh wondered "whether a moratorium was really the right thing" since "time is of the essence" for patients. He said he was "moving towards" the regulatory option because "maybe the idea of … a de facto moratorium as we work out the regulations would, in fact, accomplish all the things that I had wanted for a moratorium."

With those three votes, the council's pro-cloning camp would have attained a 10-member majority for its regulatory scheme. But that was before the anti-cloning camp went to work on the fence-sitters. Two anti-cloning council members, Mary Ann Glendon and Gilbert Meilaender, urged Fukuyama to think of the moratorium as a means of "having a broader public debate" and "preparing regulation." Meilaender told the fence-sitters that a moratorium meant "extending the conversation," possibly to "come up with model legislation for what regulation could look like," whereas the regulatory proposal would exclude opponents of cloning from the debate. The council's chairman, Leon Kass, agreed.

The political motivation of the anti-cloning members was transparent. They wanted to ban research cloning but rallied around a moratorium instead because they figured they could get a majority for it. Meilaender conceded that a moratorium was "not the best option as far as I'm concerned." Council member Charles Krauthammer said he "would prefer a ban" but "could live with" a moratorium. Glendon, pressed to explain why she supported a moratorium rather than a ban, said she was "comfortable" with a moratorium. Having implored the fence-sitters to support a moratorium on the grounds that it would leave the debate open, she explained that for her own part, she preferred not to "exaggerate the difference between moratorium and ban."

Kass had a different issue. His support for a moratorium, he conceded, was "modestly informed by my concern that once again we will not be able to do anything at all on the thing I care most about, namely a ban on cloning for reproduction, because of the continued division" over research cloning. To unite the council behind a moratorium, he argued that it could provide "an incentive to develop the regulatory mechanisms" that the fence-sitters wanted, whereas the regulatory proposal wouldn't provide the strict rules they seemed to have in mind. After Kass clarified the choices in this way, Dresser backed away from the regulatory proposal and suggested that Fukuyama might do so as well. Since no stricter regulatory proposal was on the menu distributed by the council's staff, the fence-sitters' only alternative was to switch to the moratorium.

And switch they did. Dresser, Fukuyama, and McHugh joined the moratorium proposal, making it the majority recommendation. In comments accompanying the final report, Dresser said she was turning down the regulatory proposal because it "could be divisive and could reduce the chance for developing an oversight approach that would be acceptable to a majority of citizens." McHugh rejected the anti-cloning camp's attribution of human individuality to cloned embryos but said he favored a moratorium "heading towards regulation." Fukuyama said nothing. The bottom line is that at least two council members, enough to swing the majority, were counted in the report as supporters of a moratorium and were counted by the White House as supporters of Bush's position, when in fact, under terms and leadership less favorable to that position, they would have been counted as supporters of research cloning.

The point isn't that the anti-cloning camp played dirty politics. The council's pro-cloning members played politics, too; they just didn't try as hard. Indeed, Ballot Box is an admirer of Kass, a friend of Krauthammer, and a critic of research cloning. The point is that politics permeates even the most earnest of debates. When thinkers like Kass claim to be above politics, they aren't just kidding you. They're kidding themselves.