Ancients Arise to Challenge Modern Science

Los Angeles Times , June 25, 2001

While everyone was talking about federal funding for stem cell research, the Bush administration took a stand on a more important biomedical issue. And it came down on the side of sickness and death.

The issue is "therapeutic cloning." Suppose I need new heart tissue or some insulin-secreting islet cells to counteract diabetes. You could take the nucleus from one of my cells, stick it in an egg cell from which the nucleus had been removed, let that develop into stem cells (special, early-stage cells that can become any other type) and then trigger the stem cells to form the specific sorts of cells needed. The new "cloned" tissue would be genetically mine and would not face rejection problems. It would function in my body as if it had grown there naturally.

Obviously, there are a lot of scientific advances needed before we can do this sort of tissue creation, but you can see the enormous promise it holds for curing all sorts of diseases. You can also see that there are no babies involved.

A bill sponsored by Reps. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) would make this process a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

At a congressional hearing last Wednesday, Claude Allen, deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, declared that the administration supports the bill with some technical quibbles.

This is a radical law that goes far beyond the live-and-let-live attitude that says controversial biomedical research should be privately funded. This bill would treat biomedical research like methamphetamine labs.

In a Fox News Channel interview, conservative pundit Bill Kristol said the bill is important because nucleus-transfer technology would be "a step over the line from medical therapy and from the advancement of science to a 'brave new world' scenario of the manipulation of human nature."

This is a common misuse of "Brave New World." In a world of individual choice and biomedical freedom, "Brave New World" can't happen. Aldous Huxley's dystopia depends on government control of the means of reproduction. More than two decades after the first test-tube baby, we should know that institutions, not technologies, create dreadful societies. Artificially conceived children are everywhere, beloved by their parents, and their existence hasn't radically altered society.

"Brave New World's" government-controlled vision of the good is where Kristol and his allies are heading. They believe they know the one best way for human beings to live, and their dogma forbids tampering with "human nature," defined in a narrow, biological way.

This is not an argument between liberals and conservatives, in the usual sense, but between moderns and ancients. In his Fox interview, Kristol cited the conservative philosopher Leon Kass, who testified in favor of the bill and whose ideas are embodied in it. Kass excoriates contemporary culture for showing irreverence toward bodies in pursuit of longer, healthier, happier lives.

In his 1985 book, Toward a More Natural Science, Kass criticizes moderns for not emulating the ancient Greeks: "We, on the other hand, with our dissection of cadavers, organ transplantation, cosmetic surgery, body shops, laboratory fertilization, surrogate wombs, gender-change surgery, 'wanted' children, 'rights over our bodies,' sexual liberation and other practices and beliefs that insist on our independence and autonomy, live more and more wholly for the here and now, subjugating everything we can to the exercise of our wills, with little respect for the nature and meaning of bodily life."

Congress is basing legislation on the reasoning of a man who finds the dissection of cadavers morally troubling. This isn't about the 21st century. It's about the 16th.

In his testimony, Kass stuck to a more politically appealing argument: The only way to ban baby cloning is to imprison scientists who transfer human nuclei for any purpose at all. He may be right about that. The question is: How many people are you willing to let suffer and die--and what police tactics are you willing to use against science--to stop the birth of a few cloned humans?

In Kass' view, and perhaps in the administration's, there is no limit. Any amount of suffering is justified to prevent cloned children and preserve an ancient idea of the "nature and meaning of bodily life." Let's hope Congress is more humane.