March 18, 2009

For a better understanding of Obama’s policy on human cloning

There has been considerable discussion over the last week in the media and the blogosphere about President Obama’s decision to reverse George W Bush’s policy of denying federal funding to stem-cell research that requires killing human embryos. Expectedly, Obama has been praised and criticized in equal measure, mostly depending on whether the “judges” were Republicans (especially religious right-wing conservatives) or Democrats (especially left-wing liberals). This is actually perfectly normal. Yet, what was surprising to me was to discover that some harsh critics of Obama criticized him for both right and wrong reasons—I mean, they criticized him both for what is wrong and for what is right with what he did and said, thus exposing themselves, in my view, to the risk of falling into blatant contradiction.

Such is the case, for instance, of this post, which, after some righteous critical remarks, accuses Obama, who also declared in the same occasion that he would never open the door to the “use of cloning for human reproduction”—because, in Obama’s own words, “it is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society”—of having decided that while scientists may form cellular clones on which to experiment, “citizens may not use the same technology to create a human life.” Which implies that, according to Melissa Clouthier (and Katherine Jean Lopez), the use of cloning for human reproduction is in itself a good thing. In fact, she continues,

[i]f a family loses a child and can create a clone, who is President Barack Obama to impose his morality on that family? There may well be good scientific research that shows human cloning to be “safe” when “responsibly done.”

Interesting observations, and a fairly liberal attitude towards the whole matter …, or am I missing something? And if so, wouldn’t it be better to be a bit more straightforward?

This “might” also seem to be the case of Charles Krauthammer, in a must-read piece on (also here). He besides had long argued, during his five years on the President’s Council on Bioethics, that, “contrary to the Bush policy, federal funding should be extended to research on embryonic stem cell lines derived from discarded embryos in fertility clinics,” as he himself recalls. Which is, to me, an arguable opinion, but not devoid of common sense. But, he continues,

Bush had restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to cells derived from embryos that had already been destroyed (as of his speech of Aug. 9, 2001). While I favor moving that moral line to additionally permit the use of spare fertility clinic embryos, Obama replaced it with no line at all. He pointedly left open the creation of cloned -- and noncloned sperm-and-egg-derived -- human embryos solely for the purpose of dismemberment and use for parts.

Here his criticism is exactly on target:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science, and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research -- a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.
On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence.
How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.
That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part -- the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" -- would have made me walk out.
Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.
What an outrage. George Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out.

More than moral abdication … I cannot but agree with Charles Krauthammer. Furthermore, he continues,

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values."

But here is what might seem to be a turning point of Krauthammer’s argument:

Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

By the way, please note that Obama did not close the door to human cloning, he simply closed the door to “the use” of human cloning for one purpose, but left the door open to “the use” of human cloning for other purposes, as Terence Jeffrey points out in another must-read post.

Well, says Krauthammer,

Does he [President Obama] not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Does this mean that Krauthammer thinks that cloning for human reproduction is in itself a good thing? Well, no, actually, even though his formulation is somewhat (unintentionally) ambiguous. He basically wants to point out that Obama is contradicting himself:

Is he so obtuse not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike President Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.
This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.
Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand -- this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."

In other words, it is not that Obama is doing wrong when he bans the use of cloning for human reproduction purposes, but the ban should be far more extensive. Quite a different story.

However, what is now certain is that it’s time for Obama’s pro-life supporters to face the facts: despite superficial and misleading appearances, Obama supports human cloning for embryo-destructive research.

To conclude, for those who might still have doubts, here is what Ian Wilmut, famed for creating Dolly the cloned sheep, had to say about reproductive cloning in an August 2008 interview to Scientific American:

S.A.  Why do you think a ban on reproductive cloning is important?
W.  Quite apart from anything else, I think it would be entirely appropriate to get a ban at the present time because there is a very significant risk of dead babies or of children with severe abnormalities. The list of abnormalities which we've seen in livestock and in mice is very long and quite horrifying if you think of it in terms of children. In one lamb, it panted all of its life, even when it rested, because of restricted blood flow through the lungs. After two weeks we decided that it was kinder to end its life because we could not correct the abnormality. And, of course, it wouldn't be without risk to the woman who was giving birth to the child because there are often difficulties. And so, on those grounds alone, I would have thought that there would be pretty well a unanimous wish to prevent that sort of thing happening.

My own view has not changed at all that there are other reasons why reproductive cloning should be prohibited, which are essentially because of the psychological effects of being a clone. We do tend to anticipate and expect that children will be like their parents. And I think that would be even stronger if the child were a clone. And so that's the reason why I would be concerned about it.


  1. I agree. There are limits which, when passed seem to lead to a labyrinth of possibilities over which science could lose itself, if not produce megalomaniac scientists, which would amount to the same result. One feels more reasured by the researcher who affirms from experience that the more one discovers, the more one realises how little one knows. Some are convinced that as science progresses it evolves towards religious or metaphysical depths.
    How one can permit human cloning only for 'specific medical purposes'? Where does one draw the limit line? It's impossible, because even for 'specific medical purposes' there can't be any limit. One either permits it or not.

  2. Great post, Rob. I totally agree with you.

  3. Thank you so much for this post, Rob. You made my mind clear.

  4. Nicely done, Rob. This whole issue gives me the creeps, along with a sense of foreboding. We've only just begun to think about this. Science will soon open up possibilities for human cloning that will be both miraculous and horrific. This simply is not something we can permit. The troubling thing is, we can outlaw it country-by-country, but that's not going to stop some group of scientists in some corner of the world from doing whatever they want to. Like I said, gives me the creeps.

  5. Thank you, it is a good one. I agree