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Reason, Not Pretense
[December 31, 2002]

By S. M. Oliva

The cloning debate resumed this week with the announcement—still unconfirmed—that a cloned baby was born to an American woman. This report essentially mocked the consensus that emerged in Congress over the past year, which agreed that reproductive cloning should be banned, while no decision was reached on the issue of research cloning. Now both issues are back on the table, and with a conservative Republican majority resuming control of the Senate, it is likely that Congress will react quickly to this week's developments.

The ethical issues have not changed, but the pretentiousness of the anti-cloning side continues to grow. National Review Online has highlighted a column by senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru that claims the title "Reason, Not Faith," in calling for a total cloning ban. This essay is a red herring, as it lures the reader with the siren of rational argument, while ultimately resorting to appeal to faith.

Ponnuru's essay is a classic example of argument from intimidation:

Nobody has ever made it clear to me why, if the notion that embryos deserve protection from being killed is theological, the notion that they do not deserve protection isn't equally theological.

Nonetheless, the assertion itself is false. The case against destroying embryonic human life does not depend on theological premises, and is therefore a case that can in principle be embraced by people with widely varying theological commitments or indeed by people who do not understand themselves to have any theological commitments at all. It is not necessary to believe that blastocysts have souls, or will go to Heaven when they die, in order to oppose their deliberate killing.

To oppose research cloning, it is necessary to believe 1) that the early embryo is a living member of the human species and 2) that all entities that meet this description have intrinsic worth such that it is wrong intentionally to destroy them. To support research cloning, it is necessary to deny one or both of these premises.

An argument against theology is not itself a theological argument. The question of whether embryos "deserve" protection is an ethical one, and ethics does not require the existence of theology. This is a mistake that many, if not most, conservatives make when pronouncing moral judgment.

Addressing the merits, Ponnuru's "tests" for supporting research cloning are easily met through reason. An early embryo is not a member of the "human species" in that it is not a human being. An embryo is a potential human being, and the difference is neither semantical nor irrelevant. Indeed, the distinction goes to the very foundation of morality, and Ponnuru's insistence that embryos are human beings expose his argument as nothing more than faith-in-reason's clothing.

The conservative-theological position is that human life begins at the moment of conception. The simple act of creating a clump of cells with unique DNA entitles one to the status of human being. But biology is not what makes humans unique or entitled to legal protection. If that were the case, one could endorse the notion that biology is a determining factor in other aspects of human life. Suppose you had a set of twin brothers, and one of them commits murder. If biology were the determinant of life, it could be reasonably argued that the innocent twin should be held accountable as well, since his identical biology makes him equally predisposed to commit murder in the future. I grant this is an extreme interpretation, but it is not without some basis. After all, slavery and racism are based on the same essential concepts—the belief that one's status in life is permanently fixed by biological factors outside the individual's control.

What makes potential human life actual human life is not his body, but his mind. It is the rational faculty which gives man his intrinsic worth, not his biology or some mystical divine Providence. This is why other animals—whether embryonic or full-grown adults—can ethically be subjected to human experimentation. The rational faculty is the bright line separating humanity from lower orders of life. The moment an embryo or a spotted owl possesses such a faculty, I will be the first to call for their protection of their right to life. But that's not where things stand today.

Ponnuru, not surprisingly, tries to downplay the importance of rational faculty and return the issue to biology:

The embryo is alive, not dead or inanimate. It is human, not a member of some other species. It contains the human genome. It is an organism, not a part of another organism like one of your skin cells (which, of course, also contains the human genome but is not a human being). It is a complete entity that directs its own continuous development. You were never a skin cell, nor a sperm or egg cell; but you were once a one-celled embryo.

If the embryo is a human being but has no right to life, obviously it must be true that not all human beings have intrinsic worth and deserve not to be killed. If that is true, then it must also be true that human beings possess what worth they do not in virtue of their being human beings but, rather, in virtue of some traits that they have acquired that other human beings do not.

The candidates most commonly proposed for the role of that special acquired characteristic are consciousness, mental functioning, making choices, and the like. But if the right to life is tied too closely to these characteristics, it is not only embryonic human beings that will be found not to deserve protection. Infants lack the immediately exercisable capacity for mental functioning as well. So do the comatose and the severely retarded, not to mention people who are sleeping.

This last paragraph completely misstates the issue. Possession of a rational faculty is an essential characteristic of human life—not an "acquired" characteristic as Ponnuru implies. Language is an acquired characteristic. Musical skill is an acquired characteristic. Possession of a rational faculty is not. The extent of the mind's development, and the extent to which an individual uses that faculty, is not dispositive, as Ponnuru falsely claims. Infants lack mental development, but they do possess a rational faculty, only one that requires training and development. The comatose and retarded possess a rational faculty, albeit one that functions at a substantially lower level. A sleeping person's rational faculty remains fundamentally sound.

Ponnuru's biological arguments, meanwhile, ignore a key element of the research cloning debate: early embryos are composed of undifferentiated cells, not specialized ones. That's why they're potentially valuable to scientists. A newly fertilized embryo is nothing more than undifferentiated cells. It's not even the equivalent of a skin cell. Nor is an embryo a "complete entity". It is a parasitic entity that requires nine months of development inside an actual human being. In the absence of a mother, an embryo will cease to develop. This is why anti-abortion opponents are not truly "right to life" advocates—they would sacrifice the actual life of the mother for the sake of the embryo's potential life.

In closing, Ponnuru returns to his admonition that opposition to cloning is reason-, not faith-based. But he does so with a subtle threat:

Which is not to say that God doesn't enter the picture. Many of us who believe that research cloning involves the unjust destruction of human life believe that it is, precisely for that reason, a sin against God. To the extent that we have reasoned correctly, our reasons are (among) God's reasons as well.

If Ponnuru is protesting that a cloning ban is not motivated by theology, why would he close on this argument? God does not engage in reason, at least not in the Judeo-Christian tradition. God simply issues edicts—often in the form of vague mandates—that his followers then attempt to divine and follow. In religion, when faith contradicts reason, it is faith that prevails (just ask Galileo). This effectively nullifies Ponnuru's entire claim to reason in this debate, since he states that at the end of the day reason is irrelevant. God's word is final.

This is not to say that all opposition to cloning is theological. In fact, much of the governmental efforts to regulate and ban cloning have nothing to do with religion—they have to do with power. Note that right after the announcement of the cloned baby, the Food and Drug Administration rushed in demanding to know whether their rules on human experimentation had been violated. The FDA could care less about reason or theology. But they very much care about someone engaging in science without government permission.

Many members of Congress will seize on the "public interest" argument to demand FDA regulation of any new cloning research technologies. Science, after all, cannot be trusted to develop on its own. There will be much talk of "Brave New World" scenarios where cloned babied will wreak havoc on society. But once again, this ignores the fundamental understanding of human life. Cloning a body does not—and cannot—clone a mind. The mind is composed not just of a biological organ, but also of conscious, volitional choices made throughout the course of one's life. One's genes do not force acceptance of ideas, principles, or values. Only the exercise of one's rational faculty can acquire such things. The issue is ultimately one of individualism, not of technological control.

When the cloning debate does resume in Congress, these are the arguments that must be raised. The best way to get a total ban on cloning is to concede the false moral premises articulated by Ponnuru and his conservative brethren. This is, we can all agree, a moral debate above all else. And in such contests, the side that is advocated most consistently and forcefully will prevail. The question then becomes, do the proponents of cloning have the intellectual courage to attack their opponents on a fundamental level, and to do so consistently without fear. The year 2003 will likely answer this question.


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