In her book, The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel observes that political lines often blur dramatically on science, technology, and bioethical issues. Many on the right, for example, will oppose various forms of reproductive technology out of religiously grounded moral principles; many on the left, meanwhile, will wind up in the same place because of their reflexive distrust of "corporate" science. As a result, those in the relative center can find themselves besieged from both sides.
Postrel's theory certainly seems to help explain a recent move by the environmental group Friends of the Earth (FoE) to call for a moratorium on the cloning of human embryos for medical research purposes (therapeutic cloning). Usually, it's the anti-abortion set that's worried about the laboratory use of embryonic stem cells (or a bunch of human clones running around). Now, it's a left wing earth-friendly group whose president, Brent Blackwelder, recently argued before a Senate subcommittee that the "push to redesign human beings, animals and plants to meet the commercial goals of a limited number of individuals is fundamentally at odds with the principle of respect for nature."
If Friends of the Earth gets its way, the environmental movement as a whole could soon take up this crusade against human embryo cloning, and the dreaded "slippery slope" toward manufactured humans such research might lead us down. According to FoE's cloning expert Larry Bohlen, the group has just sent a letter to the environmental community asking other organizations to support their call for a moratorium on the cloning of human embryos for research.
That community is certainly tightly knit, as I have reason to know. Less than twenty minutes after I began making calls for this column, FoE spokesman Mark Helm phoned me even though I hadn't contacted his organization yet. Helm had heard about my inquiries through the grapevine ("my friends are very loyal," he said). Over the course of the day, he called me repeatedly, concerned that I was going to "slam" his organization -- which, he said, was not "stepping out of [its] purview" by taking on the cloning issue.
Helm might try telling that to the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the League of Conservation Voters. I asked representatives of each whether their organizations worked on cloning; the answer was always "no." "It's not clean air, safe water, those issues that we know voters care absolutely about," said Scott Stoermer, spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters. Similarly, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Elliott Negin observed that "as far as NRDC is concerned, we're not involved with that issue." Matt Lasky of the Sierra Club, meanwhile, remarked of cloning, "I don't think we've even taken a look at it to consider whether it's an environmental issue."
Friends of the Earth would presumably argue that they have more foresight than these other environmental groups. But it may be that they just have a more over-active imagination. For example, FoE draws an analogy with genetically modified foods, fretting that the introduction of bizarre genes into human beings could spin out of control, presumably creating horrible chimeras or genetic underclasses. Genetic engineering amounts to "a form of biological pollution for which there is no product recall," according to Helm. It's one thing to care about such matters in the abstract, though; it's quite another to call for a halt to promising and ongoing scientific research on that basis.
Indeed, while FoE has been on the record against human reproductive cloning and genetic engineering since 1999, it only recently extrapolated to the cloning of human embryos for research purposes. The vast majority of Americans oppose reproductive cloning, but therapeutic cloning has the overwhelming support of the scientific community because of its potential health benefits. These could include finding ways to generate specialized cells like nerve cells to repair or replace human tissues -- cells that wouldn't be rejected by a person's immune system because they are genetically identical.
FoE's arguments for entering this fray -- and on the side of the embryo-worshipping religious right -- comprise a weird blend of vague pantheistic religiosity and science fiction. According to Larry Bohlen, FoE looks at "the redesign and engineering of all life as a disregard for nature." However, the group's concept of "nature" is incoherent. In his Senate testimony, FoE president Brent Blackwelder stated, "the principle of respect for nature leads us to oppose the full-scale commodification of nature -- whether it be humans, animals, plants, or landscapes." Yet how can Friends of the Earth declare humans part of "nature" but simultaneously oppose human activities like genetic engineering on the grounds that they would be "unnatural"?
Bohlen attempts to answer this question by postulating that artificial changes to the human genome are "enduring and irreversible." But what about building a bridge, a more or less permanent encroachment on "nature"? Weirdly, Bohlen's response to this question takes on uncharacteristically anti-environmental undertones. "If you build a bridge and disturb a habitat, it's a change that could be reversible," he comments. Wait a second -- is Friends of the Earth now more worried about possible alterations to the human germ-line far in the future than actual incidents of habitat disruption in the present? If so, no wonder the Sierra Club isn't following their example.
In the end, Bohlen concedes that FoE's principle of a "respect for nature" is at base an "emotive argument" -- i.e., not one based on reason. "I think people have an inherent gut level response to wanting to protect the natural environment, and I think that people have an inherent gut level reaction against genetic modification of people, plants and animals," he comments. This argument, for the record, is virtually identical to that advanced by president Bush's bioethics czar Leon Kass, who defends the "wisdom of repugnance" in response to human cloning. Once again, left and right meet.
But Friends of the Earth has not only taken its research moratorium stance on the basis of the "respect for nature"; it also argues that we should respect the "precautionary principle" when it comes to new technologies like cloning. (That's why the group wants a moratorium on therapeutic cloning rather than an outright ban, as favored by Kass and others, and encoded in a Senate bill by Kansas's Sam Brownback.) Speaking before the Senate, Blackwelder listed an array of tragedies that might have been averted by the application of such a principle: ecoystem destruction by introduced species like the starling; fisheries depletion; mad cow disease.
Blackwelder himself showed little logical caution, however, when it came to linking this litany of grievances back to the cloning of human embryos for medical research purposes -- or in stipulating how out-of-control human genetic engineering follows from basic scientific research to improve human health. All he noted, really, was that some nutballs have said that they would try to clone humans, and that some thinkers have been a bit less terrified of the future than he.
Granted, this know-nothing approach can be made to seem like wisdom when bolstered by science-fiction speculation. "Imagine that people were engineered with a trait that caused them to, say, have extra strength but also be incredibly violent," suggests Bohlen. Well, yes, I suppose I can imagine that. But I can also imagine embryonic stem cell research, bolstered by human embryo cloning, ultimately leading to a therapeutic cloning cure for Parkinson's disease. And I have to say that one of the two possibilities seems to me strikingly more plausible and immediate than the other.