With one bill currently before the Senate and another that is nearly finished being drafted, many Americans may think that the problems of human cloning and bioengineering are enduring careful scrutiny from the Hill. The two bills, Brownback-Landrieu and Feinstein-Kennedy, would both ban human cloning, but Feinstein-Kennedy would permit therapeutic cloning research to continue. While the bills only tackle a very specific concern, it is clear that the passage of either bill will satisfy few and continue the expansion of the burgeoning rift on all issues related to bioethics.
The stringent debate on this issue illustrates that the forthcoming developments in genetics will only generate more contention and misunderstandings. While many caricaturize the opponents of cloning and genetic engineering as inhumane reactionaries, many of the arguments that undergird their position reflect a respect for the uniqueness of humanity and the sovereignty of the individual. Simultaneously, humans are faced with another threat to their humanity: The suppression of the creative instinct. It is clear that there are two ways that humans can irreparably lose their humanity through either permitting or restricting genetic engineering: Changing ourselves through objectification and shying away from scientific discovery.
Although the possibility of human cloning is almost universally unpalatable and creates visceral opposition across the political spectrum, genetic enhancement does not generate similar revulsion. Instead, many believe that increasing human mental capacities, physical abilities and extending the human life span will be only a boon for humanity. However, genetic enhancement does not exist to heal the ill, a trait indicative of human compassion, but exists to improve our species. Unlike compassion, the desire to improve and perfect future generations is misplaced.
The desire to enhance human traits turns offspring into a product to improve society. The specifically produced skills and abilities of the genetically enhanced child will become the sole values through which they are judged. The child would exist not for itself, but in servitude to both parental and societal goals. I fear that as this technology become feasible and people begin to accept it, these concerns will vanish. U.S. society’s adherence to utilitarianism will make these concerns appear inconsequential when confronted with the possibility of human “progress.” Another cause for concern is that parents will select the traits for their children that are culturally acceptable. As political economist Francis Fukuyama argues, very few if any parents would choose homosexual children or children with aggressive behavior. The elimination of these and other traits would create a stagnant society unable to dynamically respond to its challenges and will limit creativity.
While these are a few of the compelling arguments against genetic enhancement, there are reasons to reject this reasoning. Isn’t the reorganization and ultimate perfection of humanity the ultimate end of our species? Shouldn’t humans continue to persist in their efforts to break the bonds of mortality? No matter how an individual judges these concerns, government cannot simply stifle this influence and hope it will vanish. The scientific pursuit is what has defined our species.
If legislation is passed in this nation to prevent cloning or genetic enhancement, research will inevitably move to another country. The insuppresability of human curiosity assures this. While legislation may delay the development of these technologies, society will eventually confront the awesome brunt of these possibilities. As a society, we need to collectively assess these values and broaden this novel debate. It will require a vigorous assessment of our present values, the goals of society and the uniqueness of the human organism.
This is a debate that cannot be pigeonholed into the stale and increasingly useless Left-Right paradigm. Liberal opponents of genetically modified food products and pro-lifers are often on the same side of the debate, while laissez-faire proponents of free markets and libertarians oppose them. The questions are too complex, too subtle and far too important to be represented by plodding and static ideology.
Zac Peskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.