Thursday, April 28, 2005

Clone Bad, Shut Up Shut Up Shut Up

Lurking at the heart of the debate over stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning is a big old honkin' black box: the unthinkability of human reproductive cloning. With the exception of a pariah Italian embryologist and some South Korean researchers who claim they just want the stem cells, no one in the scientific community will touch human cloning with a ten-foot pipette. Figures clear across the political and religious spectrum go miles out of their way to denounce the very possibility. Even the staunchest advocates of therapeutic cloning tie themselves in pretzels to diss the reproductive kind.

Why please? The religious perspective is easy, and covers most politicians, especially in the States. Non-religious science types are harder to figure. The only argument I ever see put forward by this side is that 'the risks are currently too great'. 'We don't know what hidden health repercussions there might be down the road.'

The absurdity and hypocrisy of this should be pellucid; one glance at the multi-multi-bajillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry shows how routinely medical science is willing to risk applying new drugs and technologies that might, and in many cases do, turn out to have significant health repercussions later on.

This isn't just an indication of overweening greed on Big Pharma's part (though Yhwh knows there's plenty enough of that, and worth a whole separate discussion of how the profit motive modulates risk thresholds), it's also, and distinctly, fundamental to scientific progress. It's in the essential nature of medical research to perform experiments in non-human models, be they in-vitro, computer simulation or animal analogues, for as long as useful data can be so obtained, and then at a certain point to make a risk-benefit analysis of the viability of human trials. It is impossible to know for certain the risks of a human trial beforehand; the organism is too complex and too little understood. But these calculations are made all the time, and then some trials turn out badly and some issue to the tremendous benefit of humanity. That's how the game works: no risk, no reward.

The disingenuity of this argument is compounded by the qualification 'currently'. Rarely is anyone ever asking 'Can we start cloning humans by supper-time today?' The debate is framed in terms of eventual viability, and yet the answer to the question 'Could we ever...?' is always 'No, because we don't know enough now.'

This, I suspect, is because that's not the real problem for these people. The current state of our knowledge is a red herring, a rational blind they can use to justify their wholly irrational, visceral revulsion at the idea of human cloning. Just today Steven Rose, rationalist extraordinaire and general voice of materialist reason, came out against Ian Gibson's recommendations to loosen controls on various reproductive and genetic technology and experimentation, as follows: 'This is laissez-faire genetic and reproductive technology pushed almost to the limit, with even a hint that in the future reproductive cloning might be acceptable.' [Italics mine.]

This is given as the ultimate in ethical turpitude, as if Gibson were hinting that someday his committee might decide incest is acceptable too. Note that Rose says 'in the future'; this isn't even the objection based on current knowledge. It's a brain-stem response: Reproductive Cloning Bad, Now And Always. No justification, he just assumes we all share this taboo.

This troubles me. To be clear, I am not coming out unequivocally in favor of human reproductive cloning, although I'm definitely not organically opposed to it. What I am is deeply unconvinced by any of the arguments I've ever seen agin it, and very disturbed by the unquestioning attitude of our finest science minds towards a significant politico-scientific issue of the day.

Here's an argument I can think of in my own little head that does give me pause: the human subjects of cloning experiments would, by definition, not be consenting participants. This has real weight. (On the other hand, medical trials have been conducted in shady consent conditions ranging from Tuskegee to African HIV vaccine trials, so it would be pretty damn hypocritical to act as if this were the first time such a thing had been contemplated. Not saying that's a justification, just that the players involved should check their professional conduct pretty closely before venturing that argument.)

My point is that this is not an argument I've ever heard put by anyone in the debate. Truth is, I've never heard any credible scientific argument put by anyone in the debate, and that's the problem.

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