Sins of Petition:

In late January, The New York Times ran an influential story with the headline "Some for Abortion Rights Lean Right in Cloning Fight." Certain members of the "political left," Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg revealed, had united with religious conservatives to support a ban on not only human reproductive cloning -- that is, on cloning used to create new beings -- but also on what is known as "therapeutic cloning," the cloning of human embryos for research purposes.

Republicans and Democrats alike want to prevent the birth of cloned babies. But research into embryo cloning may hold tremendous health benefits for those suffering from degenerative diseases like Parkinson's or diabetes. That's why the Democratic legislation pending in the Senate -- a bill co-sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts -- would ban only reproductive cloning. And that's why Stolberg's story, claiming that left and right had joined forces to oppose all cloning, was so surprising.

Stolberg's contention was based on her observation that a collection of prominent left thinkers had signed a statement, circulated by media-savvy technophobe Jeremy Rifkin, that called for outlawing all embryo cloning for research purposes just like the Republican alternative to Feinstein-Kennedy -- a bill sponsored by anti-abortionist Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. In truth, however, left-liberal support for the Rifkin statement is rather less than it seemed. Of the five ostensibly left-leaning individuals besides Rifkin that the Times centrally cited, one (Emory University women's historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese) actually voted for Bush; two (Our Bodies, Ourselves co-author Judy Norsigian and New York University sociologist Todd Gitlin) have since endorsed a statement that deliberately avoids a Brownback-style ban; one (University of Maryland political scientist Benjamin Barber) can't even remember signing Rifkin's petition in the first place; and one is the always iconoclastic Norman Mailer.

And that's just the beginning of confusion over this petition. Though Rifkin's 68-name list does include some true-believing environmentalists and feminists who continue to make common cause with Brownback, a number of its more influential signatories have begun to back frantically away from the statement. Many are stunned to discover they had put their name to a petition arguing for the criminalization of medical research. City University of New York sociologist Stanley Aronowitz can't remember signing the petition but says that if he did, it was because "I get 100 e-mails a day and I acted too hastily." Tikkun editor Michael Lerner, who has since switched petitions along with Norsigian and Gitlin, admitted "I made an error in endorsing beyond what I actually believed." Quentin Young, former president of the American Public Health Association, has now signed a petition to defend research cloning. (The Rifkin statement, he says, "was kind of subtle and I misread it.") And then there's Howard Zinn. In a phone interview, the famously left-wing author of A People's History of the United States asked to have the difference between stem cells and cloned embryos explained to him. Then he admitted, "I think you should be responsible for what you sign, and that's why I regret signing [the Rifkin petition]. Because I didn't really know the issues."

Dartmouth's Ronald Green, author of The Human Embryo Research Debates, and R. Alta Charo, a five-year member of President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, are liberal bioethicists who strongly support embattled clonal embryo research. They are furious at Lerner, Young, Zinn, and company. "When you enter into a major national debate and you don't think about what you're doing, I think that's ethically irresponsible," Green fumed. Added Charo, "I think it was a very poor showing for the leading academics of the left."

Green, Charo, and others who are now signing a "progressive" counter petition to defend research cloning have been particularly appalled by the right's effective exploitation of its supposed new left-leaning allies. On a recent edition of Meet the Press, Brownback proudly cited his allegiances with "environmental groups" and echoed their concerns about "the commodification of the human species." Meanwhile, a just-launched ad campaign by the National Right to Life Committee -- aimed at pressuring Democratic Senators Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad into supporting the Republican Brownback bill -- says the legislation "is also supported by a broad coalition of environmental organizations, women's health organizations, and other groups not associated with the pro-life movement."

But in fact, it seems clear that the notion of a politically serious environmentalist or women's movement against embryo cloning is overblown. Sure, Norsigian's Boston Women's Health Collective has jumped on the cloning issue, as have more radical environmental organizations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. But much larger and more influential groups such as the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, and the National Organization for Women are staying out of the cloning issue, at least for now.

And yet, the growing embarrassment of the Rifkin petition nothwithstanding, Norsigian -- who now regrets "having let my name be signed" to it -- may have made the same mistake again. So may have Gitlin and Lerner. They've signed onto yet another -- and purportedly more moderate -- petition against therapeutic cloning, this time sponsored by the Center for Genetics and Society, which calls for a "moratorium" on embryo cloning research. But the group doesn't say when that moratorium should end or why, making it hard to distinguish from a Brownback-style ban.

The center's petition, like Rifkin's, has a liberal flavor: "We are long-time advocates for human rights, the environment, and social justice," it says. Indeed, writing for The New York Times op-ed page, environmentalist signatory Bill McKibben described the group as a "broad coalition of environmentalists, feminists, and other progressives." He also admitted that its position was "arguably closer to the stance of most conservative Republicans, who want a permanent ban on all forms of cloning."

What McKibben didn't mention, though, is that the petition seems to be partly misinformed. Though it decries the "lack of societal controls" on cloning, Charo notes that in 1997 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asserted its authority to regulate reproductive cloning and announced it was forbidden. And the FDA already had command over therapeutic cloning in any case involving tissue transplantation. (The FDA does lack jurisdiction over basic science research involving cloned embryos, but the Feinstein-Kennedy bill would close this gap in the federal regulatory structure.)

Of course, this leaves McKibben's coalition lacking many of its reasons -- beyond a desire to use the cloning issue to achieve more sweeping anti-biotech aims -- to oppose the Feinstein-Kennedy bill. And now that they're becoming aware of this, some liberals are once again jumping ship, just as they did with the Rifkin petition. University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor Joel Rogers, a prominent left liberal, retracted his signature in an unpublished letter to the Times observing that McKibben et. al's "statement of relevant science and political debate are mistaken." Herbert J. Gans, a noted Columbia University sociologist, has also retracted his signature, explaining by e-mail that "when the right to lifers misused the petition for their own purposes, they also altered its political meaning." And Dissent editor Michael Walzer, who had also signed the Center for Genetics and Society letter, now says it "seemed to bring us too close to Senator Brownback's position."

"I did think that I knew what I was signing," admits Walzer. "And I also do think that academics are citizens who have a right to enter the political process -- and even to make mistakes."