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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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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