Making Medical Progress a Crime


If you get all your news from The New York Times, you'd think that the Bush administration is wrestling with its most important and controversial biomedical policy issue: whether to allow federal funding of research using stem cells from frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. (The latest Times story, on Senate Republicans who support the research, is here.) Unfortunately, through a great trick of policy misdirection, the administration has already taken a much more extreme and dangerous position on a more important biomedical issue: whether to criminalize "therapeutic cloning."

The science goes something like this: Suppose I need a new heart or 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, and then trigger the stem cells to form the specific sorts of cells needed—heart tissue, say, or islet cells. The new tissue would be genetically mine and, therefore, 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 the cure of all sorts of diseases. You can also see that there are no babies involved.

A bipartisan bill in the House (and a similar bill in the Senate) would make this research a federal crime. Transferring my cell nucleus to an egg (human or animal) would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and, if you got paid to do it, by civil fines of not less than $1 million. With a few technical quibbles, the Bush administration has endorsed this sweeping bill, which is sponsored by Reps. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

At a hearing yesterday, Deputy HHS Secretary Claude Allen declared that the administration supports criminalizing all applications of "somatic cell nuclear transfer with human somatic cells, such as cloning to produce cell- and tissue-based therapies," which is the technical way of describing this sort of cell manipulation. The Washington Post, with better news judgment than the Times, which ran nothing on the hearings, put the story on page one.

I would gladly cut off funding of embryo-stem cell research tomorrow if that would permanently placate the forces who want to treat privately funded biomedical research like methamphetamine labs. But the other side is not willing to live and let live. They want criminal laws and they want them now, before the science goes so far that it becomes politically unstoppable.

Bill Kristol, who plays a moderate Republican on TV, is on a crusade to stop this and other biotech research on human beings. Moral panic over biotech has long been a Weekly Standard theme. Now Kristol has a new organization called the Bioethics Project, and he was out making the talk show rounds yesterday—attacking embryo stem cell research on Nightline and pushing the Weldon-Stupak bill on The Fox News Channel. In a Fox interview with Brit Hume, he said the bill is important because nuclear transfer technology would be "opening the door to a 'brave new world' in which we design our descendants, our children. You know, we'll clone our embryos. Then we'll select certain stem cells and—and do eugenic manipulation on which children we choose to have. And it really is 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. Huxley's dystopia depends on government control of the means of reproduction. In the book, that central control has replaced the private bonds between parents and children. The scary part of Brave New World is the uniformity and coercion of its society, not the mere existence of genetic engineering. More than two decades after the birth of Louise Brown, and all the hysteria that surrounded her "test tube" conception, we should know that institutions, not technologies, create dystopias. Artificially conceived children are everywhere, beloved by their parents, and they haven't radically altered our world.

Brave New World's uniform vision of the good is exactly where Kristol and his congressional allies are heading, criminalizing science, medicine, and reproduction. Their agenda, like the novel, replaces diverse, decentralized, intimate decision making by parents and families. Kristol and his allies are in effect trying to socialize reproduction and child rearing. They are asking the police, rather than parents, to act on behalf of children—not just in extreme cases of abuse, which could occur via genetic technology just as it can occur with more primitive means, but in every case.

It's important to ban this entire line of research, Kristol said on Fox, because transferring a nucleus to an egg to produce tissue "would clone the embryo for the sake of producing stem cells that could then be used either for the sake of the person from whom the clone was developed or for others." That's my heart and islet cell story above. He continued, "I would argue, and many of the witnesses today argued—Leon Kass, the very distinguished social philosopher from the University of Chicago, for example—that opening this door is just to begin to go down really a terrible and scary path of eugenic manipulation of human nature."

There's an entire philosophy of the relation between humans, nature, and technology buried in that inflammatory language. This is not a wonky policy argument. It's about fundamental issues of conscience—about how you value human life and what you see as its essentials. It's not an argument between liberals and conservatives, in the normal Washington sense, but between moderns and ancients.

The Weldon-Stupak bill offends my conscience, and the consciences of millions of other Americans (including some traditional religious authorities) who believe that saving people from suffering and death is more important than preserving a pre-Enlightenment (specifically, pre-Vesalius) view of the proper limits of medical science. Kass, whose ideas are embodied in the bill, excoriates contemporary culture for all its manifestations of irreverence toward bodies in pursuit of longer, healthier, happier lives.

"Even the perfectly voluntary use of powers to prolong life, to initiate it in the laboratory, or to make it more colorful and less troublesome through chemistry carries dangers of degradation, depersonalization, and general enfeeblement of soul," he writes in his 1985 book, Toward a More Natural Science. Another striking passage criticizes moderns for failing to emulate 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.

At yesterday's hearings, Kass omitted any mention of the evils of autopsies and organ transplants and stuck to a more politically appealing argument: that the only way to ban what the Brits call "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 how extreme a police state are you willing to impose on science—in order to stop the birth of a few cloned humans? In Kass's view, and perhaps in the administration's, there is no limit. Any amount of suffering is justified to prevent baby clones and preserve a uniform idea of the "nature and meaning of bodily life."

This is high stakes politics. With barely a hint of serious public discussion, Congress and the White House are moving to erode parental rights, destroy freedom of inquiry, and condemn millions of Americans to suffer and die. Such inhumane policy making should exact a political price. Its advocates should face a few informed and pointed questions. The public should have some idea what's going on. The future of medical progress deserves at least as much attention as campaign finance reform. But so far, the subject barely makes the papers.