Brave New World has arrived at last, as we always knew it would. On January 22, 2001, Britain’s House of Lords voted overwhelmingly to permit the cloning and maintenance of human embryos up to 14 days old for the purposes of medical experimentation, thereby taking the first terrible step toward the legalization of full-blown human cloning. Meanwhile, an international group of human-reproduction experts announced their plans — current legal prohibitions be damned — to bring cloned humans to birth in order to provide biological children to infertile couples. They expect to deliver their first clone within 18 months. The ripple effect on human history of these and the events that will inevitably follow may well make a tsunami seem like a mere splash in a playground puddle.
Human cloning is moving slowly but surely toward reality despite intense and widespread opposition throughout the world. Many resisters worry that permitting human cloning would remove us from the natural order. As the venerable Leon R. Kass has so eloquently put it, cloning brings conception and gestation “into the bright light of the laboratory, beneath which the child-to-be can be fertilized, nourished, pruned, weeded, watched, inspected, prodded, pinched, cajoled, injected, tested, rated, graded, approved, stamped, wrapped, sealed, and delivered.”
Kass’s point is that once human life is special-ordered rather than conceived, life will never be the same. No longer will each of us be a life that is unique from all others who have ever lived. Instead our genetic selves will be molded and chiseled in a Petrie dish to comply with the social norms of the day. And if something goes wrong, the new life will be thrown away like some defective widget or other fungible product. So long, diversity. Hello homogeneity.
Perhaps even worse, widespread acceptance of cloning would be a deathblow to the sanctity/equality of life ethic — the cornerstone of Western liberty from which sprang our still unrealized dream of universal human rights. The premise of the sanctity of life ethic is that each and every one of us is of equal, incalculable, moral worth. Whatever our race, sex, ethnicity, stature, health, disability, age, beauty, or cognitive capacity, we are all full moral equals within the human community — there is no “them,” only “us.”
Cloning stands in stark opposition to this equalitarian dream. It is — and always has been — the quintessential eugenic enterprise.
Eugenics, meaning “good in birth,” directly contradicts the self evident truth enunciated by Thomas Jefferson that all people are created equal. Eugenicists believe that the moral value of people is relative, or to put it another way, that some of us are better than others of us. Eugenicists seek to “improve” humanity by breeding out the “undesirable” traits of those deemed less worthy. Indeed, the pioneers of the eugenics movement worked for more than 50 years during the late 1800s and into the middle of the 20th Century to eliminate the genes of the “unfit” from the human gnome, first by encouraging proper eugenic marriages (positive eugenics) and more perniciously, by involuntarily sterilizing those deemed to have undesirable physical and personal traits (negative eugenics).
Anyone with even a modicum of historical knowledge — alas, a scarce commodity in these post-modernistic times — knows where that led. In this country alone, 60,000-plus people were involuntary sterilized. In Western Europe, eugenics belief systems combusted with social Darwinism and anti-Semitism to produce the Nazis and thence to the Holocaust.
Today’s eugenicists are not racist or anti-Semites but they exhibit every bit as much hubris as their predecessors by assuming that they — that we — have the right to direct the future evolution of humanity, only now rather than having to rely on clunky procreative planning they literally grasp the human genome in their hands. Cloning plays a big part in these plans as the patriarch of the modern bioethics movement, Joseph Fletcher, a wild eugenicist, well knew when he wrote nearly 30 years ago that cloning would “permit the preservation and perpetuation of the finest genotypes that arise in our species.”
What are these supposedly “finest” genotypes? Most neo-eugenicist cloning advocates worship at the altar of the frontal lobe, valuing high intelligence and logical thinking in much the same way that founding practitioners of eugenics valued the blue eyes and blond hair they saw each morning in their own mirrors. Thus, Princeton University’s Lee Silver hopes through cloning to create a “special group of mental beings” who “will be as different from humans as humans are from the primitive worms…that first crawled along the earth’s surface.” Yet Fletcher, Silver, and most others of their ilk almost always miss the point that smart people are not necessarily good people. And they rarely discuss designing people with the most important human capacities of all: the ability to love unconditionally, gentleness, empathy, the deep desire to be helpful and productive. Ironically, these highest, best human characteristics are often found in people with Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities — the very people who the neo eugenicists believe should be evolved intentionally out of existence whether through genetic manipulation or if necessary, selective abortion, and infanticide.
Eugenics, as awful as it is, is only the beginning of the threat posed to the natural order by human cloning. Some cloners have decided that if they are going to “play God”; they might as well do it all the way by creating altogether new life forms. Indeed, scientists have already used cloning techniques to add jellyfish genetic material to a cloned monkey embryo, manufacturing a monkey that glows in the dark. Nor is human life itself immune from such “Dr. Meraux” forms of manipulation. For example, some in bioethics and bioscience support the creation of chimeras — part human and part animal — beings Joseph Fletcher called “parahumans” who he hoped would “be fashioned to do dangerous and demeaning jobs.” In other words, Fletcher advocated the creation of a slave race of mostly-humans designed by us and for our use. “As it is now,” the bioethics patriarch wrote in his typically snobbish fashion, “low grade work is shoved off on moronic and retarded individuals, the victims of uncontrolled reproduction. Should we not program such workers ‘thoughtfully’ instead of accidentally, by means of hybridization?”
Fletcher’s dark dream of human/animal chimeras is well on its way to reality. Not too long ago Australian scientists announced they had created a “pig-man” through cloning techniques, and allowed the hybrid to develop for more than two weeks before destroying it. Last year, a biotech company took out a Europe-wide patent on embryos containing cells both from humans and from mice, sheep, pigs, cattle, goats, or fish. Where such manipulations will lead may be beyond comprehension.
Cloning presents humankind with the postmodernist version of the Faustian bargain. Through cloning, we are told, our greatest dreams can be realized: the barren can give birth, genetic anomalies and disabilities can be eliminated at the embryonic level, near immortality will be within our grasp as replacements, for worn out organs can be grown in the lab for transplantation without fear of bodily rejection. But the devil always demands his due — the higher the “value” of the bargain, the greater the price.
In cloning technologies we may face the highest price of all: the end of the perception of human life as “sacred” and the concomitant increase in the nihilistic belief that humans are mere biological life; an increasing willingness to use and exploit human life as if it were a mere natural resource; eventually, the loss of human diversity itself — and these are just the foreseen consequences. The unforeseen consequences of mucking around in the human gnome may be worse than we can imagine. As Leon Kass has written, “shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”