This week's House vote on human cloning produced one of the year's
most interesting and unexpected alliances. Bernie Sanders, the proudly
self-described socialist from Vermont, and Tom DeLay, the staunchly
conservative Republican whip from Texas, both supported a strong cloning
This is not one of those columns suggesting that because two representatives
on the far ends of politics voted one way, the other side must hold
the high, moderate ground. On the contrary, there is a moral and intellectual
clarity in the DeLay-Sanders alliance that needs to be taken seriously.
But does the debate over cloning really cut across the normal lines
of demarcation in American politics? After all, most of the foes of
cloning are conservatives who also oppose abortion. On the other hand,
most supporters of abortion rights also favor "therapeutic cloning"
But it's not that simple. Contemporary political conservatism has
another imperative: opposing increased regulation of private industry.
Voting for the strong ban on cloning proposed by Rep. Dave Weldon,
a Florida Republican, put conservatives at odds with biotech companies.
The companies were out in force against Weldon's bill this week. Many
critics of the prohibition feared it would not only get in the way
of research but also would hurt some of America's rising entrepreneurial
Most liberal House members voted against Weldon's bill and in favor
of an amendment by Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) that would have permitted
"therapeutic cloning" research to go forward. But ask yourself:
Aren't liberals the ones who regularly say it's the task of government
rules to inject social and moral concerns into the marketplace?
That's where Sanders, who supports stem cell research, voted with
DeLay for decidedly un-Republican and un-conservative reasons. "I
have very serious concerns about the long-term goals of an increasingly
powerful and profit-motivated biotechnology industry," Sanders
said in a statement. "It was unacceptable to me that the [Greenwood]
amendment would have created a new licensing regime that for the first
time would expressly condone cloning in the United States."
Yet the truth is that Sanders and DeLay were not all that far apart.
I apologize if I cause him heartburn, but DeLay's own statement was,
in a narrow sense, "socialist," because it plainly put social
and ethical concerns above the claims of market freedom.
"This technique would reduce some human beings to the level
of an industrial commodity," DeLay declared on the House floor.
"Cloning treats human embryos--the basic elements of life itself--as
a simple raw material. This exploitative, unholy technique is no better
than medical strip mining." Talk about exploitation and reducing
human beings to industrial commodities is more the stuff of AFL-CIO
meetings than of gatherings in the Republican whip's office. You wonder
whether DeLay might ever be persuaded to apply similar logic to other
What the DeLay-Sanders confluence points up is that we are using
too narrow a frame in discussing the great issues raised by developments
in biotechnology. The common formulation is to declare this a battle
between "religion" and "science."
Greenwood put the argument plainly: "I am not prepared as a
politician to stand on the floor of the House and say: 'I've got a
philosophical reason, probably stemmed in my religion, that makes
me say, you cannot go there, science, because it violates my religious
But we subject science to all sorts of restrictions for moral and
philosophical reasons, and that's a good thing. Greenwood himself
would ban cloning for reproductive purposes. Why, other than for "philosophical"
reasons, would he do that? Would he suddenly be wrong if his reasons
were also "religious"? We regulate all scientific research
involving human beings, which is why Johns Hopkins University got
into so much trouble recently when a healthy young woman died in an
asthma study. Scientists cannot be exempt from rules and laws based
on common moral understandings; few would ever ask to be.
The new developments in biotechnology hold great promise, but they
also raise the most profound questions about what it means to be human.
You don't have to be a right-to-lifer or religious (or, for that matter,
a socialist) to think that on "therapeutic cloning," we
should put on the brakes so we can ask where this research is heading--and,
before it's undertaken, whether it should be done at all.
"There has been insufficient public debate about the ethical
implications of human cloning technology," Sanders said. He's
right. It's why, for one day at least, he stood arm-in-arm with Tom
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