Leon Kass seeks to take cloning out, and embryo research with it.

Tuesday, 19 February, 2008

I’ve noticed Leon Kass, the conservative bioethicist who headed up the US President’s Council on Bioethics, has a recent piece in The Weekly Standard called “Defending Life and Dignity: How, finally, to ban cloning. It’s a usual quasi-religious diatribe against cloning, with phrases such as this:

We seek to protect vulnerable human life against destruction and exploitation. We seek to defend human procreation against degrading reproductive practices–such as cloning or embryo fusing–that would deny children their due descent from one father and one mother and their right not to be “manufactured.”

All it needs now are the words ‘God-given’ in front of right not to be manufactured and it would be complete. Perhaps I am not familiar enough with the arguments of Kass, but I fail to see how anyone has a ‘right not to be manufactured’ or is due a ‘descent from one father and one mother’. Does not the US Declaration of Independence read:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Doesn’t Liberty include reproductive freedom? That would mean that we have a right for the government to stay the hell out of our bedrooms (and, by extension, the IVF clinic). I’m sure Kass remembers the last time the US Government (in this case, state governments) interfered with procreative liberty by prohibiting mixed-race marriages (in other words, by stating that children are owed a ‘due descent’ from one white mother and one white father). That was found by the Supreme Court in the case Loving v. Virginia to be contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment, which defends the rights mentioned in the Declaration.

In order to justify a interference in liberty, there needs to be a real and present danger to individual (or public) health and /or happiness. I’m sorry Leon, but a threat to some made-up rights and some fuzzy concept like ‘human dignity’ just don’t cut it. If dignity rated higher than freedom, then we’d have bans on silly hats and clown shoes (and, as far as I know, we don’t ban those unless they pose a safety risk).

Towards the end of his piece, Kass then starts to call for legislation. As this is a Biopolitics blog, I will look at this section more closely than the rest:

First, it now makes great sense to beef up federal support for regenerative medicine, prominently featuring ramped-up work with iPSCs (and other non-embryo-destroying sources of pluripotent human stem cells).

Yes, I agree with this, save for the ‘non-embryo-destroying’ clause. As I said a few days ago, we need embryo research.

Second, we should call for a legislative ban on all attempts to conceive a child save by the union of egg and sperm (both taken from adults). This would ban human cloning to produce children, but also other egregious forms of baby making that would deny children a link to two biological parents, one male and one female, both adults.

‘Deny a link to two biological parents’? I believe Kass is talking about a biological link to two parents here and not a social link, because single parentage and anonymous sperm/egg donation appears to be no problem. Why, if it is acceptable to be conceived by a mystery sperm, is it then unacceptable to be conceived from an egg derived from a female embryo? If one can acceptably never know one’s genetic parents, then does it really matter if those genetic parents were never adults or are now one’s grandparents (as in the case of one’s mother or father being cloned to produce oneself)?

Third, the time is also ripe for a separate bill to defend nascent life, by setting up a reasonable boundary in the realm of embryo research. […] The new iPSC research, however, suggests that our society can medically afford, at least for the time being, to put aside further creation of new human life merely to serve as a natural resource and research tool. We can now prudently shift the burden of proof to those who say such exploitative and destructive practices are absolutely necessary to seek cures for disease, and we can require more than vague promises and strident claims as grounds for overturning the moratorium.

Conveniently, I have already provided such arguments when I said that we need embryo research. Also, I think that instead of banning the practice until absolutely necessary, the more appropriate response would be to allow the practice until absolutely unnecessary. That, to me, would be more in keeping with a right to Liberty. We should require more than ‘vague promises and strident claims’ as grounds for limiting freedom with a moratorium.

Kass ends on a note that, saving for the last sentence, I must agree with:

The science is moving very rapidly. Before the end of the summer, we may well hear of the cloning of primate babies or perhaps even of a human child. Now is the time for action, before it is too late.

I wonder what Kass would do if presented with bouncing human baby that happened to have an identical genome to her mother. Once it is ‘too late’, what would Kass have us do then? Personally, I hope he would have a conversation with the child, and ask her if she feels wronged by her mother or if she feels she has less ‘human dignity’ than she could.


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