Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Just Say No To Human Cloning

James Skillen


March 18, 1997

Earlier this month, Congressman Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich) introduced two bills in Congress, one to prohibit human cloning and one to ban federal funding for research on human cloning.

Ehlers has the right idea. Congress should follow his lead. Ehlers, an Associate of the Center for Public Justice and the first research physicist in Congress, is a strong supporter of scientific research for the benefit of human beings. He's against human cloning because of his respect for both science and the uniqueness of human persons.

A member of the House Science Committee, Ehlers actually wants to ensure that cloning research on plants and animals will continue. "If we don't ban human cloning immediately," he said at a hearing on the subject, "I feel you'll see a strong movement to ban cloning generally." That would be a mistake because many medical and agricultural benefits could come from such research on plants and animals. If all human cloning is banned now, it will be easier both to protect human beings and to advance other cloning research.

The debate that took place before a congressional subcommittee on March 5 was concerned, in part, with whether Congress should delay any action until it can review a report, due at the end of May, from the national Bioethics Advisory Commission, appointed by President Clinton. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, supported the president's appeal to Congress to wait for the report before it acts. Congressman Ehlers wants Congress to act on his bills now.

Varmus agrees that a consensus exists in opposition to human cloning and that no evidence of scientific merit supports it. Nevertheless, he opened the door a crack by saying there may come a day when, in some situations, human cloning could prove to be ethical. He argued against adoption of Ehlers' two bills.

For many, the recent reports of successful cloning of sheep in Scotland and monkeys in Oregon are cause for alarm because they can see the devil in the wings. On the other hand, many scientific optimists see in every new step of cloning research a sign of hope that science will eventually be able to overcome every disease, extend human life well beyond present limits, and greatly enlarge human happiness. Which is it? Shall we weep or rejoice?

Ehlers wants to avoid the extremes. Let's allow science to move forward. But let's also recognize that science is not God and ought to be kept within bounds. It should not be treated as humanity's savior. Human beings are not simply genes and molecules. The sanctity of human life should be protected in law. Humans should not be turned into an experimental playground.

As scientists pointed out at the hearing, cloning research is not yet dependable. A human clone would carry genes from only one parent, not both as in normal reproduction. That fact alone raises questions aplenty. Two monkeys that were cloned represented only a small percentage of the 59 embryos transferred to surrogate mothers. The Scottish sheep cloning experiment turned out even worse: only one lamb survived out of 277 embryos.

Government cannot do science, but it must do justice. In areas of life where the future is unpredictable and great harm might come to human creatures, the just thing for government to do is to insist on caution for the protection of life. Government should outlaw human cloning now. Even in the case of animal cloning to help humans, government should insist on strong safeguards and the most careful scientific work. Ehlers is right: stop human cloning before it starts.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”