Italian fertility specialist Severino Antinori has announced
that he will begin human cloning in early 2002. Two hundred
couples desperately seeking to create children will become human
guinea pigs in a massive experiment. The odds are not in their
favor. In animals, cloning currently only results in a successful
pregnancy 3 to 5 percent of the time. And, even in those rare
instances, many of the resulting offspring suffer. One-third
die shortly before or right after birth. Other cloned animals
seem perfectly healthy at first and then suffer heart and blood
vessel problems, underdeveloped lungs, diabetes, immune system
deficiencies and severe growth abnormalities.
If an infectious disease were killing one-third of human infants,
we would declare it a public health emergency. We certainly
wouldn’t set up a clinic to enable it to happen. Yet despite
these grave risks, only five states have laws banning human
cloning. There is no federal law on the subject yet. Despite
widespread public opposition to human cloning, various researchers
and biotech companies have so far prevented the passage of such
This summer, however, a set of strange bedfellows emerged to
shift the political dialogue about human cloning. A powerful
new coalition has come forward in which traditional opponents—feminists
and the Catholic Church, conservative Republicans and liberal,
if not libertarian Democrats—have banded together to express
concern about where the latest genetic and reproductive technologies
are taking us. The result: the House of Representatives resoundingly
passed a bill on July 31 banning human cloning and the creation
of cloned human embryos for stem cell research. The next step
is up to the Senate.
The hearing leading to that vote was one of the greatest occasions
of political theater of our generation. Right next to pro-life
advocate Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic
Bishops sat three witnesses whose testimony sent shock waves
across the body politic. All three spoke in favor of a bill
drafted by pro-life members of the House and Senate, and has
been widely characterized as pro-life legislation. All three
spoke against "therapeutic" cloning (the creation
of cloned embryos to be the source of stem cells), which they
argued should be outlawed. And yet all three were at pains to
stress their pro-choice credentials.
Francis Fukuyama, eminent social philosopher and theorist and
author of the unforgettable "End of History and the Last
Man," began by saying that he was simply "agnostic"
on the issue of abortion.
Stuart Newman of New York College of Medicine, on behalf of
the respected Council for Responsible Genetics (the leading
critical/environmental focus), set out CRG’s position as
pro-choice on abortion but entirely opposed to the therapeutic
research use of embryo cloning.
Most striking of all was testimony from Judy Norsigian of the
Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (current editor of
the benchmark feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves). To describe
her as pro-choice would be akin to describing the pope as Roman
Catholic. Yet she, too, spoke, in her case vehemently, against
One special moment of theater came during questioning when,
in a conversation with Richard Doerflinger, she agreed that
"the embryo is not nothing." Abortion-rights advocates
argued that maternal rights trumped fetal rights; in this case
there were no maternal rights. Another came in exchanges between
Norsigian and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), perhaps the member
most consistently and intelligently critical of the anti- cloning
law at the hearing. DeGette acknowledged to Norsigian that "your
book is one of the most important in my life." Degette’s
face was a study in cognitive dissonance.
Of course, there is theater and theater; sideshows and the
main attraction. There have been odd couples before. Some of
the most interesting stories now running have brought unlikely
coalitions together (religious freedom is one example).
But what is happening around genetics and reproductive technologies
is something more. The most challenging questions faced by our
civilization in the 21st Century will lie just here, in the
unfolding biotechnology agenda. Nothing will matter more for
the future of the planet and, especially, its human inhabitants.
And a curious consonance is emerging of pro-life "conservatives"
and generally pro-choice progressives with anchorage in the
environmental, feminist and disability communities.
Cloning has brought many of them together, pitted against the
powerful biotech industry (which continues to campaign against
regulation, with all the credibility of King Canute), technological
fatalists and libertarians of right and left.
It remains to be seen whether the testimony trio of Norsigian,
Newman and Fukuyama will set the debate between those who oppose
abortion and those in favor of reproductive choice, which has
hampered widespread societal discussion of important biotech
issues, in the context of even wider concerns about human dignity
and the human future.
But when history is written, we harbor no doubts that the cloning
debate of 2001 will be noted as the start of something very
big, in which those who oppose abortion and those favor reproductive
rights discovered common ground in their commitment to the human
future and the distrust of uncontrolled biotechnology, and revealed
the extraordinary potential of their working together.
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