As the House of Representatives Tuesday votes on possibly expanding federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research–legislation the president has promised to veto–there are some real concerns about how far we’ve already stepped into a “Brave New World.” With those concerns in mind, and a big-picture look at all the issues involved in this new world, Wesley J. Smith, a lawyer and consumer activist (friend and collaborator of Ralph Nader even!) recently produced A Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World. He addressed some of these issues Monday in an interview with NRO editor Kathryn Lopez. Bottom line: “All is certainly not lost.” However…
National Review Online: With the news out of South Korea last week, are we all one step closer to “designer babies”?
Wesley J. Smith: Absolutely. Apparently the South Korean researcher Wu Suk Hwang has learned how to reliably create human cloned embryos. Human cloning is the essential step toward biotechnologists learning how to genetically engineer progeny, a new eugenics project that enjoys great support among futurists, bioethicists, and some within the science establishment. For example, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, is a big booster of creating designer babies who have been enhanced for intelligence, health, looks, etc. There is even a nascent social movement that has formed around creating a “post human species” known as “transhumanism.” Princeton biologist Lee Silver put it this way in his book Remaking Eden: “Without cloning, genetic engineering is simply science fiction. But with cloning, genetic engineering moves into the realm of reality.”
NRO: A federal ban on human cloning seems a no-go until at least after the 2006 election. In some real practical senses, though, might 2007 almost be too late?
Smith: It is never too late to do the right thing. Cloning would be outlawed throughout the country already had not the biotech industry thrown up one of the most dishonest and disingenuous propaganda efforts against such a ban that I have seen in my nearly 20 years of public advocacy.
But we should not be disheartened. All is certainly not lost. Much of the world is turning away from human cloning. The United Nations General Assembly voted by a nearly 3-1 margin to urge member nations to outlaw human cloning. While a few countries like Great Britain decided to be unilateralist on the issue, many nations have already outlawed human cloning, including France, Canada, Australia, and Norway. Indiana just became the seventh American state to ban cloning. If enough countries and states reject cloning and fund adult/umbilical-cord-blood-stem-cell research (along with the private sector), I believe sufficient treatments will be developed so that even the New York Times will be forced to report on the progress. At that point, public support for therapeutic-cloning research would likely collapse and the vast continuing public investment of tax dollars needed to further develop and perfect human-cloning technology would peter out. At least this is what I hope would happen, which is why so many people–conservatives and liberals, religiously oriented people and secularists, pro-life and pro-choice on abortion–are working diligently to continue to hold the line.
NRO: What I found most refreshing about the cloning fight in Massachusetts is that Governor Romney sounded like he really understood the issue. That’s very rare. What’s the key to educating better–politicians, most certainly, but every citizen–on an issue that sounds so Twilight Zoney, and when you really get into it, probably puts most to sleep, sounding a bit too much like science class.
Smith: This is a real problem. And the biotechnology lobby fosters this view, aided and abetted by a compliant media, by using jargon, obfuscation, and continually changing scientific definitions to fit their political arguments. It’s as if postmodernism has come to biology.
But these technologies are easy to understand, while certainly not easy to accomplish. One of my primary purposes in writing Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World was to give readers confidence that they can understand the technology by explaining it in “real people’s language,” hopefully toward the end that people will develop informed opinions about their views of the morality or immorality, as the case may be, of the human cloning enterprise.
NRO: To what extent is the move toward “a Brave New World” about business? California making sure it rakes in the biotech money, etc?
Smith: I live in California. The proponents of Proposition 71 spent $25 million telling us that we would rake in the biotech money if we would just pass the initiative. But we will actually be shelling it out of our own wallets to the tune of about $7 billion, including interest. And this is borrowed money to finance corporate welfare in a state that is so broke our current medical needs are going unmet as our emergency rooms and trauma centers close for lack of funding.
The passage of Proposition 71 has set off an Oklahoma Land Race mentality as states compete to attract cloning companies. Yet, the private sector has mostly avoided investing in this technology because it is so highly speculative and unlikely to be a source of profitable medical products any time soon. Indeed, at this point private companies will be forming with a primary purpose of collecting taxpayer dollars.
I predict that eventually the coming cloning business boom funded by taxpayer dollars will eventually become the next dot-com bust. Only this time, the money that lost will be public funds and not private investments.
NRO: Is it even possible to ban reproductive cloning while allowing therapeutic cloning to go full steam ahead? Isn’t it, on a practical level, a bogus distinction?
Smith: Allowing therapeutic cloning would not be a cloning ban but the creation of an explicit legal license to engage in human cloning. Such a phony ban would be worse than no ban at all. In our confused moral times, the law not only reflects our values but tells us right from wrong. Legalizing therapeutic cloning would send the message that human cloning is right. After that, what bases would there be for saying no to further development of the technology as scientists gained expertise? Indeed, this is already happening before the technology is even perfected. For example, in what may be the most underreported story of modern times, New Jersey has legalized human cloning, implantation, and gestation through the ninth month–cloned fetal farming. Other states have had legislation introduced that would permit the same radical license. Anyone who thinks this technology will remain in the Petri dish just isn’t paying attention. Legalizing therapeutic cloning would promote cloning, eventually including for reproduction, not hinder it.
NRO: Later Today (Tuesday) Congress will vote on a national cord-blood bank. This has gotten little play, but cord-blood research is no little thing, is it?
Smith: It is an area of very great potential that I think all sides of these debates can agree upon. There are about four million births in the U.S. every year. Each birth carries with it a potential cornucopia of healing cells. Funding a cord-blood bank would be a very positive public policy to pursue for a very low price tag.
NRO: Should Dr. William Hurlbut’s third way be getting more attention?
Smith: I think it is getting a lot of attention and will receive much more in coming year.
Bill is a good friend of mine. He is very idealistic and loves science with all of his heart. But he is also very moral. So, he has tried to come up with a way that would permit scientists to derive the knowledge and human benefits they seek from therapeutic cloning without the associated moral problems. Toward this end, he has developed an idea called “altered nuclear transfer” (ANT) that, if it works, would construct stem-cell lines possessing the desirable properties of embryonic stem cells but without having created or destroyed embryos to obtain them. In other words, since only cells as opposed to human organisms would be created, science and morality would no longer be in conflict.
Some are worried that ANT could merely result in creating disabled embryos. Bill doesn’t want that either, which is why it would first be tested with animals. If it works as advertised in these animal models, I hope it proceeds.
Even then, however, the problem would not be solved. Most scientists do not share Bill’s moral qualms about creating embryos for the purpose of researching upon and destroying. Nor would they be willing to limit their work to the stem cells created through ANT. Indeed, the science and bioethics establishments have become so ideologically driven, many of the movements’ leaders assert that only scientists have the right to determine what is moral in science. Some are even calling for a court ruling declaring a constitutional right to conduct research, which would open the door to an “anything goes” approach to science. Hence, even if ANT works, even if the cells the procedure created provided everything biotechnologists say they want from embryonic-stem-cell research, I believe that the scientists would just shrug their shoulders and keep on cloning.
However, larger society might well see things differently. If ANT works, I believe it will become much easier to outlaw human cloning.
NRO: What are the worst fallacies in the stem-cell/cloning debate?
Smith: There are so many from which to choose: I think the most egregious problem for the average person has been the over-the-top hyping by biotech advocates of the potential of therapeutic cloning and ESCR and the swiftness by which these supposed miracle treatments will become available–to the point that sick people and their families have come to believe that these approaches may be their only hope for a cure. I was in Texas recently testifying in favor of legislation that would ban all cloning. During the hearing, I witnessed just how desperately some sick people and their families attach their dreams of health–to the point of near irrationality–in these highly speculative and morally problematic approaches to regenerative medicine.
During the hearing, a very famous cardiologist testified that in early human trials in Brazil and the USA, he had been able to effectively treat patients who needed heart transplants with their own adult stem cells. He reported that the therapies had been so successful that many of the treated people no longer needed transplants. I had heard of these experiments, of course, and was touched by this physician’s passion to help heal.
Almost the very next witness was a man with heart disease. Yet, it was as if this famous cardiologist had never even spoken. Near tears, the man told the legislators that cloning was his “only hope,” when of course the committee had just heart from a world renowned expert that this was nowhere near true. But it really brought home to me how deeply ingrained the pro-cloning propaganda has drilled the mantra of therapeutic cloning into the consciousnesses of so many sick people and their families. Yet even if it proves workable–a big if–therapies from human cloning are many years if not decades away. Such oversell is not only wrong ethically but is also cruel.
NRO: What should every “consumer” (willing or not) know about the “Brave New World”?
Smith: That the cloning ambition isn’t just about embryonic stem cells and that the research will not long remain in the petri dish.
There have already been animal experiments in cloned fetal farming. For example, one American company created a cloned cow embryo using somatic-cell nuclear transfer. It was developed in the petri dish for a time and then implanted in another cow’s uterus. The embryo was gestated to the early fetal stage, after which it was aborted and its kidneys procured. These primordial kidneys were then skin-grafted onto the cow that had supplied the DNA used in the cloning to see if the kidneys would be rejected. They weren’t and they produced urine. It was touted in the media as proof that therapeutic cloning worked even though it had nothing whatsoever to do with stem cells.
It is shocking to realize that this experiment would be perfectly legal with humans in New Jersey today. Other potential research uses for cloned human fetuses in addition making organs for use in transplantation could include drug testing, learning how to safely bring cloned babies to birth, experiments in genetic engineering, and etc. I believe that should scientists succeed in learning how to clone embryos reliably and get them to develop normally in the dish, implantation will be the next step taken, particularly if artificial wombs are successfully developed. These experiments would be justified with the same arguments we hear today, e.g. that these fetuses will never be born so there are no moral problems, that they are not conscious, so no harm is being done, that they are not really human, etc.
NRO:. How crucial has President Bush’s language been to holding back the BNW?
Smith: President Bush has been politically courageous and admirably far sighted in his support of a complete human cloning ban and in his understanding that human life matters simply and merely because it is human and should not be begun as an experiment. Without his administration’s support, for example, it is doubtful that the success at the United Nations would have happened.
That being said, I regret that he has not made better use of the “bully pulpit” to defend his moral stance and to make the positive case that we can develop a robust regenerative medical sector while still maintaining crucial moral standards. It is almost as if the administration is afraid of the issue. But they have a persuasive case if they would only pursue a vigorous proactive policy in support of the president’s moral stance.
For example, I would like to see the president personally calling attention to major adult-stem-cell successes as they occur, successes that are almost routinely ignored by major media. He could also tour adult-stem-cell-research facilities and bring patients who have been treated with adult/umbilical-cord-blood stem cells to the White House for events. This shouldn’t be an occasional mention, but an enthusiastic ongoing political effort engaged in with the president’s usual energy, verve, and gusto. Unfortunately, absent such a high-level engagement, I am afraid it will be almost impossible to bring clarity to these issues in the midst of white-out propaganda blizzard being engaged in quite successfully by the ideologues of naked science.