"The picture of the brave new world of eugenic biotechnology is coming clear, and it is an ugly and frightening picture of designed descendants, commodified body parts, manipulated babies, and life itself twisted to little more than the attempt to prove it is possible to twist life," hyperventilated J. Bottum, literary editor of The Weekly Standard, last week. This drumbeat of dystopic bombast against biotech continued last week with a joint op/ed by William Kristol, the Standard's editor, and left-wing bioluddite Jeremy Rifkin in the Los Angeles Times. They darkly warned of the advent of "a commercial eugenics civilization," offering "a new form of reproductive commerce with frightening implications for the future of society."
Kristol and Rifkin fabricate a bogus ethical dichotomy pitting "utilitarians" against those who allegedly "believe in the intrinsic value of human life." Despite their invidious moral posturing, Kristol and Rifkin do not have a lock on ethical rectitude. The intrinsic value of human life is a given for all sides in this debate. The battle is really between those who want to use the gifts of human reason and human compassion to ameliorate illness and death and those like Kristol and Rifkin who counsel fatalistic acceptance of the manifold cruelties randomly meted out by nature.
Why have some left-wing and some right-wing intellectuals joined together in opposition to biotechnological progress? The left has always known that economic growth and scientific advances can derail its schemes for an egalitarian division of society's goods. If most everyone becomes better off over time, the political impulse to egalitarianism never gains much traction. The right, on the other hand, has always been suspicious of economic growth and scientific advance because they undermine established hierarchies and traditional systems of belief. Now the technological advances regularly spun out of our dynamic commercial scientific civilization are putting ever-greater pressures on the core concerns of the left and right.
The anti-cloning campaign is not restricted to dystopian rhetoric, but also involves efforts to confuse legislators currently contemplating bans on cloning about the actual status and likely trajectory of therapeutic cloning research.
For example, in the same issue of The Weekly Standard in which Bottum is having his fit, an article by Wesley J. Smith sets aside his usual moral arguments against therapeutic cloning, and argues that it will never be practical anyway. The article shows that either Smith is way behind the times with where research is heading or he is deliberately trying to mislead policy makers and the public. Let's assume that Smith is merely behind the times.
The central claim Smith makes is that therapeutic cloning will never work in practice to help cure the 100 million Americans that the National Academy of Sciences estimated could one day benefit from stem-cell therapies. Why? Because, Smith asserts, therapeutic cloning requires tens of millions of human eggs in order to produce the cells and tissues that might cure diseases in each patient. In order to get those millions of eggs, Smith suggests, millions of women would be forced to super-ovulate, which would be an intolerable violation of their individual integrity and put their health at great risk.
Could this horror scenario be true? Not at all. In therapeutic cloning, the goal is to reset the genetic switches in a somatic cell -- say, an adult skin cell--taken from a patient's body so that it can be programmed to grow into cells and tissues that can repair damage caused by such ailments as diabetes, spinal cord injuries, or heart attacks. Researchers believe that such stem cells, which would be genetically identical to a patient's tissues, would be perfect transplants because a patient's immune system would not reject them.
At this very early stage of development, the only way researchers have to reset the genetic switches of a patient's somatic cells is to use human eggs. Where Smith goes badly wrong is his assumption that scientific research and technological progress will stand still and enucleated human eggs will forever be the only way to create immune-compatible stem cells. Relying on that simplistic assumption, Smith then sketches out his horrific scenario in which millions of women are cruelly kept in bondage as egg producers for cloning researchers. This is sheer nonsense.
Resetting somatic cells using human eggs is needed now for research to find the factors in egg cells that can reset somatic cells. Once those factors are found, human eggs will no longer be needed, says Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver. So in the future, skin cells taken from a patient may simply be dosed with the proper proteins manufactured in a lab that will transform them into embryonic stem cells. Those stem cells can then be coaxed into becoming the desired immune-compatible transplant tissues.
Silver points out that researchers are also pursuing another approach to overcome Smith's alleged human egg shortage. For example, it may be possible to use embryonic stem cells themselves to reset the nuclei of somatic cells. In other words, already existing embryonic stem-cell lines may contain the factors necessary to reset the genomes of donor nuclei. Such bootstrap stem cells could theoretically be multiplied to any desired quantity and used to produce immune-compatible stem cells for any number of patients. Again, no eggs needed.
Finally, although Smith airily dismisses the possibility, it may also be that plentiful eggs from animals like cows and pigs would do for purposes of resetting somatic cells and putting them on the path to growing new lifesaving tissues for transplant. Researchers in the United States, Australia, and China are already engaged in research exploring this prospect.
Smith's dystopia of millions of women serving as egg factories for a vast immoral biomedical complex is a fantasy. But it is a fantasy with a purpose: to horrify scientifically uninformed legislators into outlawing research into this promising biomedical technology.