Opinion » Viewpoint

Clone Rangers

Who's "mad"? Scientists or congress' faith-based moralists?



Pardon my sarcasm, but no one who has followed the recent debate in Congress regarding human cloning and stem cell research -- they are intertwined -- could help being impressed by the sheer stupidity of the rhetoric, as well as the outcome.

By a lopsided vote of 265 to 162, the House banned all human cloning, having decided the matter after less than a day of debate. Propelled largely by religious conviction -- now, there's a reason to ban cloning -- the leadership was ecstatic.

"This House should not be giving the green light to mad scientists to tinker with the gift of life," said Rep. J.C. Watts, fourth in the GOP House leadership.

Congress then went on its summer recess, enabling us all to entertain the (probably vain) hope that, as the members sit on their respective front porches, they will reflect on their impetuousness and be overcome with shame. As they sip their iced teas, they may also come to wonder why they moved with such alacrity to forbid something that -- along with time- travel and hair restoration -- does not yet exist.

For all the talk, human cloning is not quite around the corner. Cloning has famously been accomplished in sheep (hello, Dolly) but not yet in dogs or higher mammals. The experts I've consulted say we're talking 30 years down the road and overcoming daunting difficulties. Fusing new DNA with old DNA is not as easy as banning the process.

And even then what are we talking about? Why do legislators like Watts employ the language of grade-B science fiction flicks to talk about what, someday, may just be another reproductive choice? But he is not alone. In a recent essay in The New Republic, the ethicists Leon R. Kass and Daniel Callahan -- both of whom were consulted by President Bush -- call human cloning "unethical." Maybe so, but they never say why.

I grant you the prospect is scary, and no doubt it ought to be regulated. But at the moment, babies are being produced by in vitro fertilization. I know of a child produced by once-frozen sperm and carried in the womb of a surrogate mother. This, to say the least, is not traditional. I am not at all sure what God thinks of it. Nor does the so-called miracle of conception always involve something warm and wonderful.

Think of two drunks in the backroom of some frat house. If God approves of that, then who's to say He frowns upon a childless couple producing a clone of one of them? I don't see the ethical problem here. Taste? Propriety? Difficulties? Yes to them all. Among other things, the clone would know its genetic destiny, and it would be saddled, as are identical twins, with a lifetime of stupid remarks -- "How do you know who you are?" -- but these are inconveniences, not momentous moral issues.

Had the House opted for a moratorium on human cloning, it would have been praised for its sagacity. Instead, it leaped into the debate on stem cell research. After all, if stem cells have the capacity to reverse or cure diseases such as Parkinson's, think of what could be done with cells produced not by a stranger but by the recipient himself.

Back in 1969, Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority. Now he might want to write The Emerging Republican Theocracy. It is led in the House by Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, and the aforementioned Watts. They substitute faith for thought. For a minister, that's okay. For a legislator, it's a sin.

This is a complicated subject -- a peek into a frightening and unknowable future. Congress should move slowly and not be spooked by silly language about "mad scientists." If moral questions are what concern our politicians, then they ought to consider this: If they continue on their present course, people will die -- that's all there is to it. Tell me the morality of that.

Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His work frequently appears in the Flyer.

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