IF THEY SURVIVE...will we?
That was the spooky come-on for The Boys From Brazil, the popular 1978 movie that served as many people's introduction to cloning and other forms of genetic manipulation. What a downbeat primer: Based on the Ira Levin novel, the plot revolved around Josef Mengele, then the most notorious at-large war criminal from World War II, and an attempt to create a Fourth Reich by genetically engineering a new Hitler.
The year 1978 showcased another biologically loaded debut, one that momentarily inspired far more fear and panic than The Boys From Brazil: the birth of Louise Brown as the world's first "test-tube baby." "Is it dehumanizing," asked Time, "a step that is to be condemned because it puts the moment of creation outside the body into a mechanical environment?"
A quarter of a century later, The Boys From Brazil surfaces occasionally on late-night TV, an over-the-top relic of apocalyptic '70s culture. In vitro fertilization, the process through which Louise Brown was conceived, is common enough that it no longer merits much discussion, let alone societal anxiety.
But as human cloning and a host of other related technologies edge closer to becoming reality, arguments over their desirability, implications, and legal status are only getting started. This is serious stuff: Not only do these procedures hold forth the greatest promise for the improvement of human life in the coming decades, but they are on the verge of being prohibited, at least in the United States.
Last year the House of Representatives passed a comprehensive ban on human cloning, including therapeutic cloning aimed at creating embryonic stem cells that might one day help cure Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and many other illnesses. As I write this, President George W. Bush is pushing the Senate to pass the ban, which he will happily sign into law.
This is the vital backdrop for "The Clone Wars," a debate between Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, and Francis Fukuyama, author of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (page 34). In those books -- and in reason's pages -- they provide the most lucid cases for and against cloning and other biological manipulations. To be upfront about it, I'm in Stock's camp on this issue, believing not only that such technologies will help minimize human suffering but that they are morally defensible tools which will someday allow individuals greater control over their bodies and their lives.
"Biological enhancement will lead us into unexpected realms, eventually challenging our basic ideas about what it means to be human," writes Stock in the first chapter of his book. "Some imagine that we will see the perils, come to our senses, and turn away from such possibilities. But...to forgo the powerful technologies genomics and molecular biology are bringing would be as out of character for humanity as it would be to use them without concern for the dangers they pose. We will do both. The question is no longer whether we will manipulate embryos, but when, where, and how."
Stock is doubtless correct about the long run. In fact, as he underscores, we are already manipulating embryos. As with in vitro fertilization, once the benefits of the new technologies are realized, they will be embraced, or at least tolerated, as tools for individual empowerment. But legislation -- and lingering fears borne out of fantastic scenarios such as The Boys From Brazil -- will have a lot to say about when, where, and how. If they survive, it will take that much longer for our future to happen.