Jewish World Review August 7, 2001 / 18 Menachem-Av, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Drawing the line -- again and again and again -- STILL another line has been drawn in the ever shifting sand that is the debate between Life and Choice, this time on the issue of human cloning. Last week the U.S. House of Representatives voted 265 to 162 to ban the creation of human embryos for research purposes, but you know the cloners will be back -- as sure as Dr. Frankenstein always had to make one more try, confident that this time, dang it, he would get it right.

The debate in the House had a sci-fi quality about it, as if the text should have been published not in the Congressional Record but in "Amazing Stories,'' with the cast of characters all too close to caricature.

There was good ol' J.C. Watts, the Oklahoma congressman and preacher, pounding the pulpit to warn: "This House should not be giving the green light to mad scientists to tinker with the gift of life.''

And there was cool, superior, condescending Jim Greenwood, congressman and scoffer from Pennsylvania: "Some would say once you (take a single cell) and it divides, it becomes a soul.''

Listening to the dueling sound bites, a confused observer might wish for less rhetoric, more humility. It's no secret that somewhere sometime a scientist is going to clone not just a sheep but a human being. In Britain, cloning is already legal for research though not reproductive purposes, although it won't be easy to distinguish between the two processes. In labs around the world the lights are burning deep into the night. The question before the House last Tuesday wasn't whether somebody is going to clone a human, but whether the law should approve.

Well, why not? It's only one more line to cross. In a long and continuing succession of them:

First we saw nothing wrong with in vitro fertilization, complete with the destruction of those "surplus'' embryos.

Then we were going to draw the line at using those leftover embryos for stem-cell research, but that frontier is about to be crossed. (Why let those perfectly good embryos go to waste?)

Once we drew the line at abortion, but now even the semi-infanticide called partial-birth abortion has the blessing of the courts. Remember when we drew the line at euthanasia? Assisted suicide is now coming into its own.

Down and down we go, 'round and 'round we go, and there's no stopping once we have adopted Quality of Life as our standard instead of mere life. (And we the scientific will define your Quality of Life, thank you.) A comatose patient, a fetus, a depressed and suicidal subject convinced his death is inevitable (and whose isn't?), an embryo ... they all become legitimate prey. Lebensunwerten Lebens, as the more scientifically advanced Germans termed it in the 1920s -- life not worth preserving.

Once society has adopted the vocabulary of our moral relativists, there is no bottom to this slope: Human embryos become only blastocysts, just clumps of cells to be manipulated for the greater good. Therapeutic cloning is good, though it is scarcely therapeutic for the embryo involved, and reproductive cloning bad. But only for now. For there is always an "only for now'' attached as one line in the sand after another waits to be crossed.

As the distinction between permitted and forbidden fades ever more quickly, cloning starts to look like no big deal. It's just the latest Choice in this moral progression -- or regression.

In the end, this debate between those who would ban human cloning for any reason and those who would allow it for experimental purposes -- and soon enough for a lot more -- isn't really a clash of arguments but of attitudes. Some see unlimited good while others remember the unlimited evil man can do in the name of the good. And for profit. To a great extent, this is an argument between theory and experience, hubris and history.

The 162 congressmen like Jim Greenwood, who saw nothing wrong with cloning humans For Experimental Purposes Only, were essentially asking: Why not?

And the only answers we on the other side can offer are only variations of what Leon Kass, the physician and thinker, has called "the wisdom of repugnance.'' Because we know in our bones there is something wrong, deeply wrong, something repellent, about creating human embryos in order to experiment on them.

But how explain that revulsion to someone who feels no particular reverence for human life, at least in its first stages, and who sees embryos as just raw material for science? It's a real challenge, like trying to transmit a message to someone on a wholly different frequency.

When solemn assurances are offered that cloning will be regulated to avoid any harm, some of us hear only the pure, unadulterated tone of human arrogance. How can these experts and the politicians who echo them be sure? Yet they scoff at our fears and dream of creating the perfect race of men -- sans sickness, sans deformity, sans suffering and sans pity. Dr. Mengele would understand. (Those concentration camp inmates were going to die anyway; why not use them for the advancement of science?)

What C.S. Lewis called the abolition of man proceeds apace. For the perfectibility of the human organism goes hand in cloned hand with the dehumanization of man, who is seen more and more as a product than a creation. We have designer clothes and designer drugs; why not a custom-ordered, prescreened, perfect human with all the newest features and accessories? Order yours now!

The oldest temptation has become the newest: Ye shall be as gods. All that's necessary, the Serpent once told us, was to know good and evil. Things have changed: Now to be as gods, we must forget good and evil and simply forge ahead. Come, let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and have dominion.

There is something unthinking, something almost frivolous, in the unexamined assumption that Science should do something because it can be done. To quote a now ignored philosopher, the late Paul Ramsey, on the distinction between the serious and the frivolous in this debate:

"A man of frivolous conscience announces that there are ethical quandaries ahead that we must urgently consider before the future catches up with us. By this he often means that we need to devise a new ethics that will provide the rationalization for doing in the future what men are bound to do because of new actions and interventions science will have made possible. In contrast a man of serious conscience means to say in raising urgent ethical questions that there may be some things that men should never do. The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things they refuse to do.''

Even old Socrates, the prime representative of reason in the Western tradition, claimed to have had a guardian spirit. (Today he would doubtless be accused of adulterating his pure philosophy with the rankest religious superstition.) Tellingly, Socrates said his spirit never told him what to do, but only what not to do. And that may be what is most absent in all these appeals to reason in this debate: that still small voice saying, Thou shalt not.

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