Bioethics

Bioethics

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 6 1999 9:30 PM

Bioethics

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Dear Lee,

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Thanks for your recent post, which is, as always, provocative. I am sorry to report that it is also inaccurate and misleading. Before I explain our differences, I want to say where we agree. You write that Dolly, the cloned sheep, "shattered the illusion of a sharp line separating human cells with the potential to form a new life from those without such potential." I agree. The line is no longer sharp, even if certain cell types seem to work better than other types. Whatever fuzzy line remains can no longer be drawn simply between embryos and all other cells.

Nuclei can be taken from other kinds of cells, combined with eggs whose original nuclei have been removed, and a lamb or a baby mouse born. That much we now know. I don't believe that our current state of knowledge justifies the breezy description of cloning you give--making a baby from the cells blown out of someone's nose. Perhaps you were inspired by the acronym for the technique used to create Dolly and the Hawaiian mice--SCNT, which stands for "somatic cell nuclear transfer." (Your nose-blowing example would, I presume, be SNOT, but I'll let someone else decide what those initials mean.)

In fact, current techniques work very poorly. Many of these embryos fail to develop or implant. Even more worrisome--if we were to use SCNT to try to create a child--are the many abnormalities both in gestation and in the offspring who survive. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission had precisely those risks in mind when it recommended that no efforts to try to clone a baby be permitted for a period of years. We wanted scientists to learn if it were possible to reduce the risks to any child who might come into the world via cloning, as well as risks to the woman bearing that child.

My main disagreement with your post is that it confuses two very different ethical issues. You focus on the idea of "potential for human life" and claim it's merely a euphemism for certain religious beliefs that invest great moral significance in human embryos. True, many of the people opposed to research on human embryos couch their arguments in religious terms. But many other Americans, not especially religious, are morally uneasy at the prospect of "anything goes" with embryos. I believe that our moral divisions over abortion and the status of human embryos have more to do with conflicting ideas about what makes for good lives for men, women, and children than with any metaphysical disputes over embryos or potentiality. Our differences over what philosophers call "human flourishing"--especially over women's flourishing and whether it is fundamentally different from men's flourishing--are profound and pervasive. Another crucial issue is our relationship with the children we have and raise. Those are the sorts of issues we need to address.

While we are on the subject, I fear that it cheapens language to use one concept--such as "potential"--to cover a vast range of cases. Yes, in a very distant, hypothetical sense, the cells I blow out my nose may have "potential" to develop into a person--with an enormous amount of intervention and trouble, and with very dim prospect for success. Those cells' "potential" is leagues distant from the potential of a normal embryo, nestled in a womb. By the logic of your argument I suppose that I am a potential millionaire--if I win the lottery, rob a bank ... or create a successful operating system for PCs. (OK, then I'd be a billionaire.) Concepts can obscure as well as clarify, and I think the way you use "potential" does the former more than the latter.

Now to the most important point. When the commission recommended the moratorium on human cloning, in addition to protecting the human subjects of research, we also wanted the citizens of this country to consider the impact of human cloning on children and parents. Would cloning become the literal embodiment of narcissism? Would parents be tempted to try to exert excessive control over their children's traits? Would a cloned child face a narrow range of possible futures because his parents and others believe they just "know" what sort of life that child should lead? (If Michael Jordan is cloned, how will his parents react when MJ2 informs them that his goal in life is to be a great novelist? Accountant? Scientist? Bioethicist? Anything, that is, except to play basketball?) Will it be good or bad for us--and for our children--if we can choose a multitude of their characteristics? If the rich can have children to specification, while the poor have them any old way?

These are some of the "profound ethical issues" referred to in the passage you quoted from Harold Shapiro's letter (not "report," as you identified it) to the president. I believe that we serve America best not by invoking oversimplified conflicts between science and religion but by doing our best to sort out what new technological powers, such as cloning, mean for us. Anyone who gives it a moment's thought will have ideas about what is morally important in parent-child relationships. That's the conversation I'd like to see us have.