The Future Is Later

In his recent book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Francis Fukuyama writes, "Cloning is the opening wedge for a series of new technologies that will ultimately lead to designer babies...If we get used to cloning in the near term, it will be much harder to oppose germ-line engineering for enhancement purposes in the future." For this reason, argues Fukuyama, the current cloning debate amounts to "an important strategic opportunity to establish the possibility of political control over biotechnology." The buck -- or, if you prefer, the biotech -- must stop here.

By these lights, Fukuyama can't be pleased with the way the cloning issue is faring in the U.S. Senate. As we go to press, it appears that Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana lack the votes to pass their Bush-backed bill criminalizing both reproductive cloning and the cloning of human embryos for medical research (often called "therapeutic cloning"). Indeed, the Senate may be closer to passing a rival bill that would only ban the use of cloning to produce a full-grown baby. With negotiations collapsed, Majority Leader Tom Daschle has no further plans to bring up the legislation, and a dejected Brownback may carve it up into amendments.

The turnabout here -- and the implicit rebuke to Fukuyama and his ilk -- is astonishing. Just last summer, the House of Representatives voted 265-to-162 for a sweeping Brownback-style ban. And since then, as anti-cloning advocates began heaping pressure on the Senate to follow suit, a Fukuyama-esque cloning-as-wedge strategy seemed all pervasive. The "slippery slope" argument has been repeated constantly, for example, in Weekly Standard editorials ranting about the danger of a "Brave New World" and even drawing parallels between the head of the biotech firm Advanced Cell Technology and Osama bin Laden. The desire to avert a "posthuman future" also drives the so-called secular case against therapeutic cloning outlined by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, along with Fukuyama), ethicist Leon Kass (the council's chairman), and other neoconservatives.

All of these thinkers support the Brownback-Landrieu bill, and its defeat will be, in large part, their own. That makes it all the more interesting that none of them profess to oppose research cloning on the anti-abortion grounds that human embryos -- created and then destroyed for their stem cells in the process -- are morally equivalent to persons. This is no accident. "There was a real effort to get this off the issue of where life begins," notes Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research, which supports research cloning. "Instead, they wanted to shift it to 'the mad scientist versus the people.'"

To that end, Fukuyama and the Standard have been more inclined to seek alliances with scattered anti-cloning environmentalists and feminists than with the National Right to Life Committee. And they have sought to advance their cause by stoking a primal unease about cloning that springs from our literature (Brave New World), myth (Faust), and popular culture (Attack of the Clones). The idea seems to have been that, due to its resonances, cloning could serve as a Trojan horse for an array of speculative anxieties about the future. As former Clinton administration bioethicist R. Alta Charo puts it, according to this strategy "the cloning debate is about everything but what it's about."

In the Senate, however, the cloning debate turned out to be about exactly what it's about. Largely owing to the education efforts of the umbrella Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, legislators who might once have thought of The Boys from Brazil when they heard the word "cloning" now think of potential cures for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Considering that this is the first full-fledged bioethics battle of the new century -- Bush defused the last one with his contrived stem-cell "compromise" -- the development is a remarkable one. Fear mongering has been tried and found wanting.

The Senate acted differently than the House for a number of reasons. One is that, as Hastings Center President Thomas Murray puts it, "There's a world of difference in the deliberativeness with which the two chambers have acted in this case." (When the House voted last summer, it did so after just a few hours of discussion.) The pro-therapeutic cloning side also saw some stunning conversions to its position -- Orrin Hatch, Strom Thurmond, Nancy Reagan, Gerald Ford -- and was bolstered by support from Nobel laureate scientists and celebrities such as Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve (who represent an army of patients suffering from serious and often life-threatening degenerative diseases).

The pro-research cloning camp also caught a lucky break with the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal. Though the Church has traditionally been an 800-pound gorilla on all matters embryo, it has recently lost its claim to the moral high ground. As University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan says, "You try telling somebody you're concerned about embryos these days in the average church, and they're going to be standing up screaming at you, 'Are you concerned about children?'" Though many hardcore Catholics remain active on the issue, the pope has not issued a statement on cloning the way he did on stem-cell research. A bishop's campaign is unthinkable.

Still, the intellectual collapse of the Kass-Fukuyama-Krauthammer secular argument against therapeutic cloning -- which was clearly designed to extend the position's appeal beyond the antiabortion crowd -- remains the key to the Brownback bill's weak showing. Writers such as Krauthammer (and, for that matter, Republican Senator Bill Frist) repeatedly express support for the president's stem-cell decision but opposition to research cloning. That logic baffles even many anti-abortion intellectuals. As National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in response to a vast Krauthammer New Republic cover story opposing therapeutic cloning: "Krauthammer believes that [b]ecause [an embryo] is not a mere thing, it cannot be created for the sole purpose of using it in a way that destroys it. If it's already been created for some other purpose, though, as the leftover embryos in IVF clinics have been, it can be destroyed. If there's a point of principle that underlies this set of positions, I can't see it."

Indeed, Caplan describes the secular case against research cloning as "incoherent." If Krauthammer and his allies are so concerned about the human manipulation of natural reproductive processes, Caplan suggests, they should not only oppose IVF but "should be lying awake at night terrified about altered soybeans," to say nothing of amniocentesis. In fact, decades ago Kass did oppose in vitro fertilization, and for precisely the same sorts of reasons that he now arrays against therapeutic cloning -- prominent among them, his argument for the "wisdom of repugnance" (if it seems icky, don't do it).

Given these lines of thought, perhaps it's no wonder that Kass's President's Council on Bioethics has failed to reach any consensus on therapeutic cloning. Nor, consequently, has it has been able to throw real intellectual weight behind the president's and Brownback's position.

The people who aren't confused or inconsistent in opposing cloning, though you may disagree with them, are the anti-abortionists. And as the secular anti-cloning argument collapses under its own weight, it becomes increasingly clear that, at its base, the cloning issue boils down to abortion politics by other means. As one therapeutic cloning advocate puts it, "In some offices in the Senate, this whole issue has not even been handled by the health [legislative assistant]." Rather, it was kicked upstairs because of the abortion implications.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, a Pew Research Center survey in April found that "religious commitment is the most important factor influencing attitudes of opponents of stem cell research." Why cloning opponents would be any different is hard to figure, given that both debates center on embryos.

Moreover, like The Weekly Standard crowd, the anti-abortion movement has made a strategic choice to use cloning to its advantage. "To the deep thinkers in the right-to-life movement, stem-cell research and cloning are just one of many issues that they can use to advance opposition to abortion in the long run," notes John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who specializes in religion and politics.

It's not that the resolution of the cloning issue bears directly on Roe v. Wade. But for an increasingly pragmatic and opportunistic anti-abortion movement, the hope is that a legal precedent protecting cloned human embryos would feed into a broader anti-abortion political climate. In this sense, right-to-life opposition to research cloning should be classified alongside the Bush administration's controversial draft regulations to cover embryos and fetuses under the Children's Health Insurance Program and the House's 2001 passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act -- both of which were widely viewed as indirect attempts to roll back abortion rights.

If Brownback-Landrieu is indeed dead, and if both secular and anti-abortion opposition to therapeutic cloning have indeed been bested -- still a big if -- where does that leave us? For liberals, there may be an opportunity down the road to push for the federal funding and regulation of embryo research, including therapeutic cloning, as a central government function and concern. "Let me make this modest prediction," says Dartmouth bioethicist Ronald Green, author of The Human Embryo Research Debates. "If therapeutic cloning really continues to prove itself as a modality for therapy...then I think you're going to hear voices saying that the [National Institutes of Health] should be overseeing some of this research, and not leaving all the patents, and the opportunities, to the private sector."

That's roughly the way things currently stand in Great Britain. And if it happened here, liberal advocates of research cloning would no longer have to force themselves into a strange alliance with the biotech industry in the interest of protecting science. Once we put the government in control of carefully regulating embryo research instead of trying to ban it in the private sector, the United States would also be well positioned to keep pace with other nations in this field. And there's nothing scary -- or posthuman -- about that future.