February 12, 2004

The Ethics of Cloning

While science progresses exponentially, ethics is advancing at the same rate it always has the rate at which society can absorb the implications of change and accept, reject, or accommodate it. Ethics is always controlled by the story a society would like to tell about itself. Every society wants to be able to think of itself as just and righteous. The extent to which there is an agreed ethos is the extent to which there is societal agreement as to what constitutes justice and righteousness.

All ethics are not equal. If a society thinks it is ethical to perform genital mutilations on girls to keep them chaste, then they are wrong. Why? This is oppression. Oppression is both subjectively and objectively inferior to freedom. The individual is denied the right to pursue happiness, and society is denied the fruits of that pursuit.

The United States is uniquely blessed ethically. The founding fathers created a system of government that is both remarkably stable and remarkably capable of continued perfection the never ending pragmatic search for a more perfect union.

Improvement is sometimes an excruciatingly slow process. Our founders agreed that "all men are created equal." But it was the second half of the 20th Century before "men" was practically expanded to include all people - men and women of all races.

We can't be this slow anymore. We no longer have the luxury of centuries, decades, or even years to work through ethically challenging changes. The current case-in-point is therapeutic cloning and stem cell medicine.

South Korea has made a remarkable step forward. These researchers were able to clone an adult woman, grow that clone into a blastocyst (a clump of undifferentiated cells), and then harvest an immortal stem cell line. This stem cell line will be useful for further research into stem cell therapy generally and invaluable in the treatment of the woman who was cloned in particular.

This should have happened in the United States. I don't mean this as sour grapes. I'm glad that South Korea was able to make such an important contribution. But the U.S. was far ahead in this field before our President, faced with this ethical challenge, choose to punt.

I'm a fan of the President (as a visit to my political blog would show). But in this instance he made the wrong decision. It's hard for me to fault someone for erring on the side of respect for life. But it was still an error.

I'm in agreement with Phil's reasoning on this subject. The issue could not be more important respect for human life. On one hand we have reason to believe that this research could prolong life and cure disease, on the other we are concerned that we might be creating life simply to harvest what we need and throw the rest away the very definition of exploitation.

Human embryos should never be created frivolously. Congress might pass a law that, for example, legislatively prohibits developing a cloned human embryo past one month. But what I'm suggesting can't be micromanaged by the government.

The scientific community must recognize that while an embryo at this early stage is less than human, it is more than fish bait. When a research group proposes to create an embryo it should be mandatory to seek guidance from an ethics board. The ethics board should ask, "Is the research proposed substantially likely to appreciably advance science?" In a few years they might also ask, "Is this method necessary to obtain a stem cell line to treat a particular patient?"

Research must continue, but scientists should tread lightly and seek alternatives to embryo creation/destruction when possible.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at February 12, 2004 03:29 PM | TrackBack

Ultimately, I hope we find a way to produce stem cells without starting with an embryo. There are some indications that eventually we might be able to do this:


As I said, I don't think that putting a blastocyst on a new kind of development path is wrong, but we can avoid the issue altogether if we can find a new way to produce stem cells.

One of the challenges we may face (even if this does become possible) is shedding stem cells of their perceived ethical baggage. The Leon Kass philosophy of being opposed to things not because there's anything really wrong with them, but just because they're new and threatening, may spread to stem cells.

So it may be a while before we can benefit from stem cell research, even if the technical chalenges are overcome.

Posted by: Phil at February 13, 2004 06:45 AM
Ultimately, I hope we find a way to produce stem cells without starting with an embryo... we can avoid the issue altogether if we can find a new way to produce stem cells.

Yes, the genetically modified food industry blundered into some battles it probably could have avoided - setting the entire industry back decades.

It would be better if stem cells could be harvested directly from the patient or engineered from differentiated cells. But we haven't gotten there yet.

The Leon Kass philosophy of being opposed to things not because there's anything really wrong with them, but just because they're new and threatening, may spread to stem cells.

It would seem that Dr. Kass is proceeding from a core belief that life extension itself is somehow wrong - that there is something unnatural about it.

"If man were meant to fly God would have given him wings." No, if man were meant to stay on the ground God would have made him too stupid to invent an airplane. Every since man left the savanna and wrapped furs around himself to move north he has been outside of what he was physically adapted to do. This is the beauty of intelligence - it's the ultimate adaptation. It gives us the flexibility to adapt to any environment.

Dr. Kass is on the wrong side of history. Whatever possibilities stem cell research holds, full-blown life extension or something less, we are destined to try it. That's just our nature. And does anyone really believe that life extension will be unpopular once it becomes available? Kass can oppose the idea now it's just theoretical.

What proponents of life extension are asking of people like Dr. Kass is to abandon fatalism and embrace hope. This is more than many are ready to do. Fatalism is an important coping mechanism that allows us to be productive. But when life extension becomes a reality it will be wildly popular from day 1. It will grow more popular as it is accepted. Eventually, voluntary senescence will be looked on as something akin to suicide.

The problem Dr. Kass is in a position to influence government policy. His position needs to be occupied by someone who has hope for life extension, or, at least one who sees no harm in trying.

Posted by: Stephen at February 13, 2004 10:06 AM

I get the impression, from my readings, that Kass is a man in love with death, with the great gothic grandeur of it, with the shape it gives to the life cut short by it. Fine and well - people can say what they will, and do as they will with their own lives.

But Kass will cheerfully ensure that everyone else dies, whether or not they want to, and that is where his behavior becomes deeply, disturbingly unethical.

Founder, Longevity Meme

Posted by: Reason at February 13, 2004 06:12 PM