Ronald M. Green, chair of the department of religion at Dartmouth College, serves on the Ethics Advisory Board of Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company.
Nigel Cameron is research professor of bioethics at Chicago-Kent College of Law and president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future.
Nigel Cameron's latest entry in our brief, but intense dialogue about religion and therapeutic cloning arrives at an interesting moment. Last night, I was seated at dinner next to a woman whose daughter has type-1 diabetes. The woman told me that, following the birth of a second child, her daughter suffered a severe stroke that left her paralyzed on the right side of her body. The woman inquired about the prospects for therapies or cures for her daughter through stem cell and therapeutic cloning research.
This conversation took place almost ten years to the day following the official publication of the report of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel. I served on that panel along with 18 other scientists, bioethicists, lawyers and specialists in the area of reproductive medicine. Our report recommended funding for stem-cell research. We permitted the deliberate creation of human embryos for research "potentially of outstanding scientific and therapeutic value."
Unfortunately, all the work of our panel was swept away when Newt Gingrich's conservative, "Contract with America" Congress came to power in January 1995.
As I spoke to my dinner conversation partner, I reflected on how different things might have been for her daughter if the recommendations in our report had been heeded. I might have been able to tell the woman that clinical trials were now underway on stem-cell transplants for diabetes. Unfortunately, such work is still years off. Too far away, perhaps, to help her daughter.
On the basis of personal experience, I can say that religion has played a crucial role, indeed the crucial role, in this sad history. Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat For Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, a relentless opponent of our panel's work in 1994, has spent the last ten years urging, and perhaps even helping to craft, much of the restrictive legislation that was passed by Congress.
Close on his heels is Judie Brown, head of The American Life League, a conservative Catholic anti-abortion group. Lobbying organizations like the National Right to Life Committee, many of whose members are evangelical Christians, have also been important. In a nation where most citizens are unaware of the issues surrounding research in reproductive medicine, these small, well-organized religiously informed lobbying groups have been enormously influential.
The views that Doerflinger, Brown and others promote are not just religious views: they are parochial religious views, whose validity and significance is compelling to religious adherents primarily on the basis of their distinctive religious beliefs. The core view is that human life (in the sense of morally protectable human personhood) begins at conception. This view is almost exclusively the property of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant denominations. It is not the view of Judaism or Islam, which, even in their most conservative expressions, tend to hold a developmental or "gradualist" view of moral personhood. It is not the view of most Buddhists and Hindus. Despite their moral discomfort with abortion, these traditions have a much more nuanced set of views about when human life becomes protectable. It is not even the view of Mormons, many of whom hold that embryos do not become protectable until implantation occurs. Most importantly, it is not the view of the hundreds of millions of people in this country and around the world who are not instructed by specific Christian religious teachings.
This same parochial religious view also underlies the opposition to research on therapeutic cloning. Last month, Senator Sam Brownback, a leader of the Senate fight against therapeutic cloning, told the Republican convention "every life must be honored and protected." He added that there should be "respect for the inherent dignity, equality and sanctity of every human life." Mr. Brownback is from Kansas. He shares a conservative Methodist background with many other Kansans. Some of these people supported a ban on the teaching of evolution in Kansas's public schools. By no means all Kansas Methodists share Mr. Brownback's perspective or espouse creationism (indeed, the majority do not). But it seems correct to me to say that those who do hold such views base them largely on "parochial religious beliefs."
However, this limited and justifiable prohibition was sabotaged last year when a small group of nations, led by the United States and Costa Rica, sought to impose a ban that would also include therapeutic cloning. Although the Bush administration was unable to get a similar total cloning ban through the U.S. Senate, this did not stop it from trying to impose this sweeping ban on the whole world.
Why such impudence? The aim of such proposals is not to protect children. Support for the Franco-German initiative would have done that. It was primarily to reinforce George W. Bush's standing with America's "parochial" religious right; especially those four million traditionalist Catholic and Protestant evangelical voters whom Karl Rove failed to muster in the last election.
Not all those who oppose therapeutic cloning research base their views on conservative Christian beliefs. Some fear that therapeutic cloning will hasten the day when reproductive cloning becomes possible. Others abhor what they see as the potential for the "instrumentalization" and "commodification" of human life if we permit the creation and destruction of human embryos to serve people's health care needs. Finally, some feminists and social justice advocates fear the creation of a vast market in human eggs, especially the eggs of poor women, if therapeutic cloning becomes a reality.
In the context of ethical discussion, I would address each of these concerns at length. For example, I believe that those who say therapeutic cloning will hasten the advent of reproductive cloning fail to see that in a world of "cowboy cloners" like Dr. Pavos Zavos or the Raelians, irresponsible reproductive cloning will only be stopped by forceful legal action against it, not by a ban on medically useful therapeutic cloning. The opposition of some (by no means all) feminists ignores other possibilities for egg production, such as the possible use of just a few stem cells lines to produce a limitless supply of mature oocytes for cloning procedures. It also misses the fact that therapeutic cloning research is our best route to direct cell reprogramming. If we can better understand how the oocyte reprograms nuclear genetic material during the cloning process, we could dispense with the use of eggs entirely.
But these issues and debates are really peripheral. They are no more the source of the momentum in the anti-therapeutic cloning movement than an occasional downhill slope is what propels your car. The real source of the momentum, the equivalent of your automobile's gasoline engine, is the religiously-inspired view that embryos, even cloned embryos, are human persons morally equal to you and me. It is the old "right to life position" dressed up for a new occasion.
Making this clear was the point of the "world tour" I offered in my previous reply to Nigel Cameron's remarks. Great Britain, which has relatively small Protestant evangelical and Catholic communities, allows and supports therapeutic cloning research. So do India, Israel, Singapore, Korea and China-all nations where the "right to life" perspective plays little or no role in political life. In contrast, we can see the imprint of the religious forces I identify in virtually every national context where there is strong opposition to therapeutic cloning research.
It is true, as Nigel observes, that in Canada, the Roman Catholic bishops opposed the recently passed cloning law, but they did so because they regarded it as too permissive and their opposition to embryo research was a major factor in sustaining the most restrictive provisions of the law. Nigel may think that France is "the most secular major state in western Europe," but he entirely misses the powerful role still played there by a determined and well-placed minority of devout churchgoing Catholics. (This is the same minority, by the way, that made passage of PACS, the civil rights/civil union law for gay people so difficult.)
Nigel also misses the influence throughout Europe of Vatican representatives to bioethics commissions. (Indeed, partly at the Vatican's urging, Article 51 of the recently passed European Constitution requires governmental bodies to maintain "regular dialogue" with churches and religious organizations.) And he misses the role of the "religious factor" in Germany. Germany is the one nation where anti-eugenics sentiment (fostered by the Nazi past), "green" environmentalism opposed to most biotechnology, and religious anti-abortion sentiments have fused into an informal but powerful coalition that has stymied embryonic stem cell research. Nevertheless, even here, it is a conservative Christian religious impulse that is the mainstay of the prohibitory status quo.
In sum, if you remove "right-to-life" inspired conservative Christian support from the anti-therapeutic cloning movement, that movement would probably not exist anywhere as a significant political force.
Finally, let me say about my use of the word "parochial." Not all religious moral views in policy debates are "parochial." Religious believers have often made very powerful-and positive-contributions to political life. The abolition of slavery, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the drive for women's suffrage owe enormous debts to religiously informed and inspired individuals.
But in all these cases, the core arguments were also sustained on independent reasoned grounds that could commend themselves to other persons of good will. That black people and women are human persons meriting the same rights as others were not esoteric positions that had to be defended primarily by appeal to religious authority, strained readings of religious texts, or assertions that many reasonable people found unacceptable. That each of these emancipation movements ultimately prevailed is due largely to the inherent power and persuasiveness of their claims.
In contrast, the core argument of most of those who oppose therapeutic cloning research-that a small cluster of undifferentiated cells is morally equivalent to and deserving of the same impassioned respect as the daughter of my dinner conversation partner-has little support outside the camp of religious believers devoted to it.
To be sure, this argument is supplemented by others, including various slippery slope arguments about alleged threats to human dignity. Potentiality arguments are also invoked, although no one would ever reasonably contend that potentiality alone could sustain moral respect - that an acorn has the same value as a mature oak tree. But these arguments are merely supplements. The core argument, often repeated by the Roman Catholic magisterium and now adopted by modern evangelical Christians, is religious. It rests on and is an extension of a 2000-year-long history of Christian opposition to abortion.
This view of the status of the early human embryo cannot commend itself to most reasonable people who closely examine the arguments. Some evidence for this is found in studies showing that Christians of all denominational backgrounds, including devout Roman Catholics, utilize IVF procedures to have babies, even when this commits them to the deliberate creation and destruction of spare embryos. Conservative Christians may oppose abortion (for various reasons). But their defense of the very early human embryo is a relatively modern fruit of older abortion anti-abortion teachings. And it is a fruit that most of the (infertile) faithful vote against in practice with their feet.
Nevertheless, when immediate personal interests are less pressing, many of these same people join their religious leaders in opposing embryonic stem cell and cloning research on the grounds of the "the inherent dignity, equality and sanctity of every human life." This improbable, unreasonable, and inconsistently held position attains the force of law whenever those who represent these people achieve substantial political influence. This happens because a determined minority is able to prevail when others are unaware of the significance of the debates or when their own interests are not sufficiently aroused.
All this will change, I predict, when the first type-1 diabetic is cured by therapeutic cloning or stem cell technology. Then, the sleepy majority around the world will wake up. They will not be persuaded by religiously based claims that early embryos are too important to use in lifesaving research or therapy. The weak supplemental arguments about slippery slopes and "instrumentalization" will be put aside, and the ultimately sectarian nature of this position will cause it to be rejected as a guide to health policy in a pluralistic society.
<>Ron Green's summing up of his position reiterates at considerable length the point I have already drawn attention to: his strategy to defend the mass-production cloning of human embryos requires him to pin opposition to it on conservative religion. This involves his reiterating the incredible thesis that the recent cloning bans in countries as diverse as Canada, Australia, Norway, and France are the result of the potent influence of the "extreme pro-life" movement in these nations, driven particularly by the Roman Catholic church. I pointed out that France is the most secular major nation in Europe, and noted that the Canadian legislation was chiefly driven by feminists and almost failed because of vigorous opposition by the pro-life movement.
On neither of these points is his response remotely convincing. The key evidence here is that in all these countries abortion is legal, and assorted pro-life movements are not exactly on the verge of banning it. So how come they have succeeded in making "therapeutic cloning" something that does not qualify you for a Nobel prize, but seven years' jail time?
So Ron's dismissal of the significance of other groups and other reasons to oppose mass-production embryo cloning is as unrealistic as it is insulting to them-but it is necessary to his argument. The feminists and environmentalists (and also liberal, mainline churches-he ignores them) who have sought to prohibit the use of this technology in human beings have many motives and arguments, but they share with conservatives a fundamental common concern: that cloning commodifies human nature, it radically de-humanizes our species.
That is why, far from representing a "strange bedfellow" coalition that may first appear, they show how general revulsion against this use of manufacturing on the human species is extraordinarily widespread. Look again at that list of nations with comprehensive cloning bans: how more typical could a list be, what better samples are there of democratic societies, than Australia, Canada, France, Norway? And, of course, less typically though always on matters of science and conscience so very significant, Germany? Across these varied, secular, and uniformly pro-choice states are we to imagine a vast, right-wing conspiracy? Someone has been reading "The Da Vinci Code."
Against these diverse nations, Ron lists some others from around the world which he says have got it right: India, Israel, Singapore, Korea and China. In these nations, he argues, "the 'right-to-life' perspective plays no significant role in political life." He also mentions the UK, which is a global anomaly in having invented the cloning technology as well as having had a very liberal biopolicy regime since its decision to allow embryos to be created for research purposes nearly 15 years ago.
These states have embraced research cloning. He could have added Japan to his list, although perhaps the reason he did not is that the debate in Japan, just resolved in favor of cloning for research, has been hard-fought - with vigorous opposition from many quarters that have nothing to do with pro-life religion. Korea actually has a huge and vibrant church, protestant and Catholic, so it does not fit the pattern either but for a different reason (and debate has been tough here; Koreans, for traditional reasons, actually count their age from the time of conception rather than birth). Israel has long been home of some of the shadiest bioethics in the free world, with constant stories of trade in organs and other shabby ethical practices. And if Ron is honestly wanting anyone to accept that the People's Republic of China is a shining beacon of ethical bioscience and medicine he has not been reading the papers.
Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with religion, nothing wrong with Christianity, and nothing wrong with religious people seeking to play a role in public life, advancing their views in the democratic process, and seeking what they believe is good. One would have thought that a debate on Beliefnet would have taken that for granted. In fact Green rants against the influence of religious people who think democracy gives them rights and responsibilities in public affairs.
Green gives away his anti-religious prejudice when in an unwary moment he adds this sentence: "partly at the Vatican's urging, Article 51 of the recently passed European Constitution requires governmental bodies to maintain 'regular dialogue' with churches and religious organizations." There has in fact been a vast debate in Europe on the Constitution, which, in its dire secularity, threatens to split modern post-Christian Europe from its profoundly religious roots. A vast right-wing conspiracy could surely have served up something better for Europe than this weak statement of the obvious, an obligation for governments to be in dialogue with the various religious communities in their borders.
A small group? Let's do some math. When this came up last for a vote in 2003, there were 66 co-sponsors of the Costa Rican resolution, versus 22 for one from Belgium-Belgium having picked up the original German resolution after the German parliament voted overwhelmingly (all three major parties agreeing) to undermine the "German-French" position. I was in Germany early last year for some consultations and lectures on this issue, and the largest German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, published an interview with me under the title "Did Germany prevent a cloning ban?" Had Germany and France, which now both outlaw what Ron Green wants to do and would imprison him for long periods if he did it in their countries, thrown their weight behind the Costa Rican position, a global anti-cloning convention would now be open for signature. As it happens, they may yet decide to do just that when it comes up for a vote again in a few weeks-bringing their international policy in line with domestic legislation.
Opposition to mass-production human cloning for research is visceral and very widespread, wherever the forces of conscience are free from the pressures of naive but well-intentioned scientists who think they should be able to do what they like, and the businessmen behind them, who may be less naive and less well-intentioned.
This opposition unites many who favor stem-cell research using "spare" in vitro embryos with "pro-lifers"; it unites the liberal (and pro-choice) United Methodist Church with the conservative Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics; it has brought together activists on both sides of the abortion debate with environmentalists around the globe.
It is altogether too convenient for Ron Green to blame it all on religion. I was privileged to be in the White House in April 2002 to hear President Bush deliver a powerful speech against cloning. Gathered in the East Room was a highly unusual mix for a White House event, this motley collection of new-found friends from left and right, pro-choice and pro-life, Republican and definitely not Republican. They listened as the President laid out his vision for ethical biotechnology. I cannot put it better:
Science has set before us decisions of immense consequence. We can pursue medical research with a clear sense of moral purpose or we can travel without an ethical compass into a world we could live to regret. Science now presses forward the issue of human cloning. How we answer the question of human cloning will place us on one path or the other.
That is how things looked in the White House that day. It is how they look in the Bundestag and the French National Assembly, as now the whole of "Old Europe" has made embryo cloning a felony. It is how the federal governments of Canada and Australia have opted. And last year 66 states wanted such a ban to be worldwide.
This is not a debate about religion, and no amount of conspiracy theory should convince us otherwise. This debate is about the need for human beings to rally around human dignity, and ensure that as the wonders of biotechnology come to dominate the 21st century they will do so within clear ethical parameters and stop short of turning human nature into just one more commodity. You don't have to be pro-life to think that, simply pro-human. I am glad to join hands with those of all religions and none to save us from the alluring horrors of the Brave New World. I said before, and I shall say it again--because Germany has been there and done that, we should let the German conscience be our guide.