Cloning at the Crossroads of Humankind

NIGEL M. DE S. CAMERON

The world changed when it was announced in February of 1997 that scientists working for a private research institute in my former homeland of Scotland had cloned a sheep. The world was taken by total surprise. Technology first, typically by surprise; ethics and policy later, if at all. Four years later, here in the U.S. we still have no policy. There are few more worrying facts in the modern world. Let me offer three comments.

The world changed when it was announced in February of 1997 that scientists working for a private research institute in my former homeland of Scotland had cloned a sheep.

The world was taken by total surprise. In a pattern that many such developments will follow, I do not know a single commentator who expected such an announcement. Technology first, typically by surprise; ethics and policy later, if at all. Four years later, here in the U.S. we still have no policy. There are few more worrying facts in the modern world.

Let me offer three comments.

1. This is the opening round, the first skirmish in a huge, protracted engagement in which the issue is simple to state: Shall technology be harnessed for the good of humankind, or humankind for the good of technology? There are powerful forces in the culture that have a huge vested interest in preventing policy development, regulation, and oversight. They argue that the market should be permitted to prevail; that if we do not profit from these technologies, they will go offshore and others will profit to our cost; that there is an inevitability in technology that defies regulation.

These attempts to undermine the opportunity we have to channel technological innovation in the direction of the good of the human community are deeply disturbing. In an unregulated market, we would have not only the sale of human organs but the return (to be accurate, the return to the West) of chattel slavery. Naive appeals to the market are both self-serving and dangerous. Civilization has always been defined by its development of a policy framework for the exercise of our human freedoms.

That is why this debate matters so much, and why we have to win it. If we cannot prevent human cloning, on which there is wide-scale public agreement and understanding, our hope of reining in the biotech industry in its development of an endless stream of alluring and complex consumer products will begin to fade. This is the tipping point for the industry and the common good. Humankind must prevail.

2. Despite much of the press (mis)representation, this is not a re-run of Roe. The issues are different. This is the first round in what I have called Bioethics 2. Moving on from the issues of abortion and euthanasia, which are essentially about when we may take life, we confront the issues of genetics, robotics, and what lies beyond: the questions of whether and how we may make life, turning the new manufacturing biology on our own humankind.

So this is not pro-life versus pro-choice, and we gladly welcome and honor leading pro-choicers who make common cause with us in denying to the biotech industry the right to make human life. We shall find that as the Bioethics 2 agenda develops they will be our co-belligerents again and again. A sea-change is coming in our politics, and those from left and right, liberals and conservatives, will find themselves in new combinations in defense of the integrity of Homo sapiens. Indeed, I believe that our political vocabulary will be fundamentally re-shaped. For these are not side-issues, they are the great questions facing the human race in the twenty-first century.

3. We must at the same time act to ensure that we are not taken by surprise again. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission must be urgently re-established with a clear mandate to monitor developments in the biosciences, and should include leading participants in this conversation from both "right" and "left" who cherish our human distinctiveness and, while welcoming the cornucopia of blessings that our new knowledge will bring, are equally alert to its darker side. Its role is crucial both in providing expert monitoring and reflection, and also in offering a center of gravity for policy development.

We find ourselves caught up today in one of the great debates of all time, one that to some of us is plainly of even greater significance than the past thirty years' focus on the horrors of liberal abortion and the threat of euthanasia. Bioethics 2, as it were, is leap-frogging Bioethics 1. We must stop human cloning both because it is uniquely evil in itself, and because in stopping it we also assert the possibility of policy and the priority of the interests of humankind in the face of cynical assertions of inevitability and self-serving appeals to profit.

Principle and prudence come together in calling for the most effective and thorough ban on human cloning here in the United States, as offered in the Brownback/Weldon bill, and a campaign to rid the world of this fundamental assault on the indivisible dignity of human being.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Nigel M. de S. Cameron "Cloning at the Crossroads of Humankind." Wilberforce Forum (June 25, 2001).

A briefing by The Bioethics Project and The Wilberforce Forum, June 26, 2001

THE AUTHOR

Nigel Cameron is Dean of The Wilberforce Forum and Founding Editor of the journal Ethics & Medicine. http://ethicsandmedicine.com/

Copyright 2001 The Wilberforce Forum


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