Biotech Cannibalism

Government-approved human cloning may begin any day now. Already we've seen the cloning of sheep, monkeys, cows, and pigs--a veritable barnyard of clones. Ole McDonald, the mythical farmer, is next. The media reports that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in the United Kingdom has decided to recommend changes to British law to allow the cloning of human beings to create "spare body parts." The government has declined to respond to the reports.

"If you could use tissue from human embryos to save hundreds of lives, there must be a moral imperative to do it" declared Lord Winston of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London in the March 12th issue of The Sunday Times. According to the article the HFEA recommendations would allow scientists to create an embryonic clone for the purposes of extracting the stem cells from that embryo, a procedure that will cause the embryo's immediate demise. The stem cells may then be used for experimental treatments on another human being with a disease. Let's see, creating a human being for the purposes of killing that person for another human being's health, sounds an awfully lot like cannibalism, only worse. Sadly, Lord Winston is wrong on several counts. First of all, the procedure would not merely use tissue from human embryos, it would destroy them. That's like saying removing someone's heart is just using their tissue. Second, there is no moral imperative to use reproductive cloning technology.

Those who are familiar with the writings of the late Jacques Ellul will recall that Ellul was an enemy of the so-called "technological imperative"--whatever can be done, will be done. Ellul's way of defeating the imperative was to repudiate technology. If technology simply were not developed, there would exist no imperative to use it. While I have some sympathy with the distinguished French intellectual, I must demur. Technology is inert, impersonal, and neutral. Technologists on the other hand are alive, personal, and volitional. Technologists make decisions about how technologies will be used. What Ellul got right was the fact that once a particular choice has been made, that decision puts into motion certain states of affairs which, domino-like, make certain results almost inevitable. This is what another philosopher of technology, David Nye, calls technological momentum. Technology does not carry any imperative, but those who decide whether or how that technology will be used establish a momentum. For instance, during the 1950s the United States faced a decisional moment when her leadership determined to use public revenues to establish an interstate highway system rather than use those revenues to expand public transportation--trains, buses, and subways. That decision resulted not only in the nearly continuous ribbons of asphalt that criss-cross our nation, but also meant that every American would need at least one automobile in order to traverse those interstates.

Similarly, reproductive cloning does not carry with it any imperative. Nevertheless, the HFEA faces a momentous decision. If human cloning is permitted in the UK, soon the United States, Japan, and a host of developed countries will no doubt follow. A decision to kill one group of very young human beings will almost inevitably mean other human beings will be sacrificed for the health of those who can afford the technological fix offered by the burgeoning world biotechnological industry. Momentum will take over . . . for awhile. Then one day, like the world court at Nuremberg, we will rediscover our moral compass and declare those who committed such acts to be heinous criminals. This time, however, it may not be the powerful nations of the West who hold court. It may be the less well-off nations of the Southern hemisphere who hold accountable the men and women who thought the intellectual and technological seduction of reproductive cloning was just too tantalizing to resist.

There is another way. The HFEA, along with other world leaders in biotechnology, could forego human reproductive cloning. Wisdom could provide the necessary prescience to turn the momentum another direction. Instead of preying upon unborn human embryos, biotechnology, or more properly, biotechnologists, could acknowledge the dignity of human beings and refuse to cannibalize those who are least able to defend themselves. Technology has an uncanny way of biting back. We stand at the threshold of a momentous decision: respect and protect human beings or use them as means to our own ends. Is there really any question which path we should choose?