Science & Technology

Go Ahead and Clone

Don't cause real damage to assuage phantom fears.


There has been a lot of hand wringing recently about cloning. Considering that not a single viable cloned human embryo has yet been created, that the arrival of a clinical procedure to do so seems quite distant, and that having a delayed identical twin (which is, after all, what clones are) has limited appeal, why all the fuss?

The fuss arises because cloning has become a proxy for broader fears about the new technologies emerging from our unraveling of human biology. Critics like Dr. Francis Fukuyama imagine that if we can stop cloning, we can head off possibilities like human enhancement, but they're dreaming. As we decipher our biology and learn to modify and adjust it, we are learning to modify ourselves--and we will do so. No laws will stop this.

Embryo selection, for example, is a mere spin-off of widely supported medical research of a sort that leaves no trail and is feasible in thousands of labs throughout the world. Any serious attempt to blockade such research will simply increase the upcoming technologies' potential dangers by driving the work out of sight and depriving us of early indications of any medical or social problems.

The best reason not to curb interventions that many people see as safe and beneficial, however, is not that such a ban would be dangerous, but that it would be wrong. A ban would prevent people from making choices that are intended to improve their lives and would hurt no one. Such choices should be allowed. It is hard for me to see how a society that pushes us to work at staying healthy and vital could justify, for instance, trying to stop people from undergoing a genetic therapy or consuming a drug cocktail aimed at retarding aging. Imposing such a ban requires far more compelling logic than the assertion that we should not play God or that, as Dr. Fukuyama has suggested, it is wrong to try to transcend a "natural" human life span.

Also, a serious effort to block beneficial technologies that might change our natures would require policies so harsh and intrusive that the harms the effort would inflict would be far greater than the harms feared from the technologies themselves. If the War on Drugs, with its vast resources and sad results, has been unable to block people's access to deleterious substances, the government has no hope of withholding access to technologies that many regard as beneficial. It would be a huge mistake to start down this path, because even without aggressive enforcement, such bans would reserve the technologies for the affluent and privileged. When abortion was illegal in various states, the rich did not suffer; they just traveled to more permissive locales.

Restricting emerging technologies for screening embryos would fuel deep class divisions. Laboratories can now screen a six-cell human embryo by teasing out a single cell, reading its genes, and letting parents use the results to decide whether to implant or discard the embryo. In Germany, such screening is criminal. But this doesn't deny the technology to affluent Germans who want it. They take a trip to Brussels or London, where it is legal. As such screenings become easier and more informative, genetic disease could gradually be relegated to society's disadvantaged. We need to start thinking about how to make the tests more, not less accessible.

But let's cut to the chase. If parents can easily and safely choose embryos, won't they pick ones with predispositions toward various talents and temperaments, or even enhanced performance? Of course. It is too intrusive to have the government rendering such decisions. Policies in Britain to block innocuous choices like those about the sex of a child are a good example of undesirable government intrusion. Letting parents who strongly desire a girl (or boy) be sure to have one neither injures the resulting child nor causes gender imbalances in Western countries. Sure, a few interventions will arise that virtually everyone would find troubling, but we can wait until actual problems arise before moving to control them. These coming reproductive technologies are not like nuclear weapons, where large numbers of innocent bystanders can suddenly be vaporized. We have the luxury of feeling our way forward, seeing what problems develop, and carefully responding to them.

The real danger we face today is not that an occasional injury will occur from new biological technology, but that opponents will use vague and abstract threats to our values to justify unwarranted political incursions that delay the medical advances accompanying today's basic research. If out of concern over cloning, the U.S. Congress succeeds in criminalizing embryonic stem-cell research that might bring treatments for Alzheimer's disease or diabetes--and Dr. Fukuyama lent his name to a petition that supported such laws--there would be real victims: present and future sufferers of those diseases.

We should hasten medical research, not stop it. We are not devoting massive resources to the life sciences out of idle curiosity, but in an effort to penetrate our biology and learn to use this knowledge to better our lives. We should press ahead. Of course, the resultant technologies will pose challenges: They stand to revolutionize health care and medicine, transform great swaths of our economy, alter the way we conceive our children, the way we manage our moods, and even our life spans.

The possibilities now emerging will force us to confront the very question of what it means to be a human being. But however uneasy these new technologies make us, if we wish to continue to lead the way in shaping the human future, we must actively explore them. The challenging question facing us is: Do we have the courage to continue to embrace the possibilities ahead, or will we succumb to our fears and draw back, leaving this exploration to braver souls in other regions of the world?