Just weeks before the White House's commission on bioethics released its report on cloning in early July, the prospect of banning cloning in the United States seemed to die in Congress.
Wait. Did I say cloning? I meant “somatic-cell nuclear transplantation.”
The cloning debate has reached such a level of doublespeak it is no longer about “cloning.” That would not lend itself to the clever linguistic game that's now being played, to the glee of the biotechnology companies whose lives depend on the freedom to clone. You find the language lies nearly everywhere in the press. On the front page of the nation's so-called “paper of record,” the New York Times. Over the scrolling headlines of the cable-news TV networks. In the newswire stories picked up by just about every small-town newspaper in the country.
And so you can guess who is winning.
Even when the word “cloning” is used, there is a disingenuous distinction made between what is being called “therapeutic cloning” and “research cloning.” Many people in America — regardless of how educated or well-intentioned — have no idea what to make of the debate anymore, thanks to the word games.
This summer Congress failed in its long-awaited attempt to once-and-for-all ban human cloning in the United States. At the beginning of the year, few would have guessed it would fail. But a little misinformation can go a long way in a few months.
With the debate about cloning in America full of myths and distortions, the likes of Sam Brownback, a stalwart pro-lifer who has long fought for a complete ban on all cloning, was forced to compromise. So he floated this proposal: a complete ban on all “reproductive cloning” — i.e., you cannot implant a cloned embryo in a women's womb — and a two-year moratorium on what is being called “research” or “therapeutic cloning.” Both sides could stand to gain from it. Pro-cloners get time to see the technology progress and win people over. Those opposed to cloning get two more years to clear the air in the debate and dispel myths about the magic cures some seem to think are possible with cloning.
The compromise failed. This despite the fact that polls find that at least 61% of the public wants a ban on so-called “research cloning.” This despite last summer's vow from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that “I am so opposed to the effort to clone under virtually any circumstances that I can think of.” He evidently thought of a few.
Meanwhile, as the debate hit a brick wall in the United States, over in Italy, a doctor claims some of his female clients are pregnant with clones. The body of baseball great Ted Williams has been fought over by his kids. (His son wanted him frozen in an Arizona cryogenics lab so that his DNA can one day make another hitter; his daughter is incensed over the idea.) And, despite what was supposed to be a rigged bioethics commission, the seminar-style proceedings concluded with a recommendation for a total ban on reproductive cloning and a mere moratorium on research cloning. That's not quite what the president had asked for (a complete, real ban on all cloning). Still, if we could get Congress there, it'd be a start.
Upon presenting the bioethics commission's cloning report to President Bush, Leon Kass, the head of the White House commission, writes: “Human cloning, we are confident, is but a foretaste — the herald of many dazzling genetic and reproductive technologies that will raise profound moral questions well into the future.” It's important to get this one right, because it will haunt all future decisions. We've done test-tube babies, we have opened egg and sperm banks, we see ads in college newspapers offering cash-strapped college girls dollars for their eggs. Yet cloning is a whole new ballgame from which human dignity may not be able to recover.
It's not altogether too late, though. As Kass has written, “[O]ur technologies of bio-psycho-engineering are still in their infancy, and in ways that make all too clear what they might look like in their full maturity.”
And so, a number of lovers of life (doctors and philosophers, they) work to clear the air — and play fair with the language. The cloning report issued by the Kass commission is a good handbook to the debate. It shows where the discussion is now, how we got here and our choices as we move on from here.
Since Congress is unlikely to do anything useful to halt the growth of the brave new world before the fall elections, the best we can hope for is that each newly elected and returning member gets a bound copy of the report to read once the session closes. There is still time to do the right thing — but not much.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is executive editor of National Review Online.