Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2002
Charles Krauthammer in The New Republic thinks all cloning should be banned. He looks at four arguments, and disposes of all but the last.

First, you could oppose all cloning on the grounds that a blastocyst has personhood, and all the rights that this implies. Krauthammer assumes, incorrectly, that this is necessarily a religious viewpoint (it usually is, but it doesn't have to be, unless you assert that any notion of individual rights is, in a deep sense, grounded in a religious viewpoint, which may be true but isn't what Krauthammer means), and says he doesn't believe it.

Second, you could oppose all cloning on the prudential grounds that the biotech revolution will give humans too much power for potentially evil ends. He makes an analogy to the splitting of the atom; nothing intrinsically wrong, but it made possible for the first time the destruction of the planet. Maybe that was reason enough not to split it in the first place. He rejects this argument, too, without telling us why. I'll make an argument for him: the analogy to splitting the atom is apt. We developed the bomb because we were afraid the Germans would first, and use it on us. Human genetic engineering will take place - in Europe, Japan, China and elsewhere. If America is uninvolved, we'll just have less influence on the outcome. If we are involved, we have some hope of influencing the ethics of the whole business.

Third, you could oppose all cloning on the prudential grounds that there's a slippery slope. We'll start with blastocysts, move on to fetuses and finally to Peter Singer's world of a right to infanticide. Krauthammer isn't too worried about this in the end, but it's not clear to me why. The slippery slope argument is a good one. Those who subscribe to a view that personhood begins some time after conception need to identify when this point is, and justify it, so that it can attain the force of law. If you can't come up with such a point, you have a slippery-slope problem. We're dealing with this right now, in the real world, with partial birth abortions and "born alive" protection laws. What was originally articulated as a right to an early-term abortion (on the grounds that first-trimester fetuses have too few characteristics of personhood to give the state an overriding interest in protecting them) became a right to a late-term abortion (on the grounds that the acid test is viability, regardless of the degree of personhood the fetus has, and if a doctor says the fetus isn't viable, none may gainsay his judgement), which became a right to a dead fetus (on the grounds that we all know the procedure was intended to kill the fetus, so if it fails and the fetus is born alive why should that fetus have a right to life). The pro-abortion folks think they are fighting the anti-abortion folks from chipping away at womens' Constitutional Rights, but it sure doesn't look that way from where I sit; it looks like the slippery slope is sliding along and the anti-abortion forces are trying to throw something - anything - into the way to slow or stop the slide. In any event, Krauthammer isn't worried about the slippery slope.

Krauthammer correctly points out that all of the above points would apply equally well to any research on living embryos. Cloning doesn't really add much to the objections. And, since Krauthammer favors research on embryos created for IVF and set to be discarded, he wants to find another argument against cloning, which he opposes.

He finds it in his fourth argument. And that is: cloning for research would involve the creation of potential human beings solely for instrumental purposes. In the case of IVF, this isn't true, as the blastocysts are created in order to grow into human beings. In-vitro fertilization is a mimicry rather than a mockery of the process of natural procreation. How to justify using the un-implanted embryos for research? Krauthammer isn't clear, but I suspect he would say something like the following: treating these entities as persons is absurd, hence spending large amounts of money to keep them frozen and viable is an unreasonable use of resources. But wasting them is also crazy; if we're going to let them die, we might as well learn something from them before they go. But cloning is different, because these embryos would be created solely for an instrumental purpose. Destruction of potential life is not the bi-product of a legitimate endeavor but the endeavor itself.

Ramesh Ponnuru doesn't think this is a very good argument. After all, he says, if blastocysts aren't persons, what's wrong with treating them as things?

Well, I don't think that Ponnuru's argument is very good. By analogy, I draw his attention to Abraham Lincoln's arguments against the proposal by his arch-nemesis, Stephen Douglas, for popular sovereignty on the question of slavery.

Douglas argued that the solution to the slavery problem in the territories was to let the territories decide, individually and separately, whether to be slave or free. What could be more democratic? After all, slavery was already legal in many states, and no one proposed interfering with it there. Why should a Georgian have a right that a Kansan should lack? Why should not the people of every new state, acting in their newly sovereign capacity, decide what rights they should respect?

There were many arguments against this, the most obvious being that it was a practical failure. Douglas's intent was to calm tensions between North and South by cutting the Gordian knot of the status of slavery in the territories. The Missouri Compromise had (barely) preserved the union by keeping a balance between slave and free states. Opening all the territories to slavery would destroy that balance, and tear up the union. Warfare erupted in Kansas immediately after Douglas's proposal, illustrating to all how popular sovereignty would not solve the sectional crisis of slavery but exacerbate it.

But Lincoln's strongest rhetoric was deployed behind another argument, a moral one. Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He didn't like slavery, and would have rather seen it abolished, but he did not abuse the South for its peculiar institution. In his view, the South was a victim of historical circumstance; the people there came from the same lands and practiced the same faith as the people of the North. Differences in climate made for different economics and, in turn, different culture. It was foolish to call the Southerners evil for a practice that all accepted at the time it was established, and developing an addiction to it that the North was able to avoid because of geography, not inherent merit. For this reason, Lincoln was quite moderate in his views on how to deal with slavery where it already was established, and felt that any solution would have to be phased in over a lengthy period and on the basis of mutual agreement between Southern and Northern interests.

Nonetheless, Lincoln saw a great moral evil in the notion of popular sovereignty, for the following reason. The premise of popular sovereignty on the slavery question was that slavery was just another political question, with no great moral weight. A state could vote to allow slavery or not as it could vote to build a canal or not. While individuals might have strong opinions - even moral ones - about the question of slavery, by permitted popular sovereignty to determine the question the United States would effectively be saying that as a society there was no moral consensus that slavery was wrong. This Lincoln could not accept. He could accept that slavery was an evil that could not be eradicated without perpetrating worse evil, and he could tolerate it on those grounds. But he could not accept that the United States of America would declare that slavery was not evil, that reasonable people could differ on whether it was or was not evil. For that, Lincoln felt, would inevitably mean that all of America would eventually be slave territory, and none free.

There is a pretty strong analogy to human cloning. We may disagree about precisely when and how personhood should be recognized in a developing human being. Even among those who feel that, in the end, a fertilized egg is a person, we may disagree about how and when to eliminate the many evils - from abortions to miscarriages - that are thereby recognized. For those of us who draw the line later, or who see a sliding scale rather than a bright line when personhood begins, we can disagree whether, at some intermediate stage of not-quite-personhood, the right to life of the developing human overrides or does not override the right of the pregnant woman not to carry an unwanted child. But we can all agree that people are properly ends and not means, and that creating a potential human being solely to be destroyed is repugnant. It is not that we all agree on where the line between right and wrong lies, but that we all agree that something lies on the side of wrong, and that allowing human cloning makes it impossible any longer to draw any such lines.

I'm not sure I buy this argument myself. Indeed, it seems to me that unless one is willing to ascribe personhood to a blastocyst, one has to draw the line against horrors elsewhere - presumably at implantation. Contrary to Krauthammer, it is not a moral absurdity to say that it should be illegal to implant a clone but not illegal to create one. Indeed, to say this is a moral absurdity is to presume the conclusion: that there is something uniquely repugnant about creating embryos for the purpose of research and, ultimately, destruction. It does seem to me possible to draw lines elsewhere, if one is worried about the slippery-slope. But if one is worried about the moral status of a blastocyst, then Krauthammer is right. If it is permitted to create a potential human being solely to be destroyed, then such an entity truly is a mere thing, and there is no moral basis for any restriction on what one does to it. If, on the other hand, there is any moral status to this entity - if it has, or may have, some degree of personhood - then it must be unacceptable to create such entities for purely instrumental purposes.