Whether we want to believe it or not, the scientific nightmare of human cloning is approaching reality.
At a Florida news conference the day after Christmas, the Clonaid company claimed it has created the world's first cloned baby, a girl they're calling "Eve." Scientists were skeptical of the success, since no evidence was presented by the Clonaid company, part of a kooky sect called the Raelians, who believe aliens created humans by cloning 25,000 years ago and that "Jesus was resurrected through an advanced cloning technique."
This circus underlines a failure by the federal government and the press corps to focus on an urgent moral concern: The possibility of a whole new era of science without morality. The National Right to Life Committee salts every press release with the concept of "human embryo farms," labs designed to develop embryos or fetuses to a stage where their cells or organs could be extracted before they are killed. It's science fiction now, but it's a viable scenario primarily because we have no law in America barring that possibility.
As Leon Kass, the head of the President's Council on Bioethics, warns, without some serious and sustained political attention, we could quickly find "A boundary would have been irreversibly crossed. We might wake up in 10 or 15 years and say we really had a chance to pause, to take stock, to not go down a road we now regret."
The cloning debate rarely surfaced in the press in 2002, usually bubbling to the top only when President Bush took a stand. On April 10, he told an East Room ceremony full of cloning opponents that he would sign a ban on all human cloning into law. The networks missed the gravity and reduced it all to silly politics. NBC's David Gregory, for example, wanted everyone to know that this showed the President was "siding with anti-abortion conservatives."
How shallow and partisan is that? It doesn't matter that a cloning ban is supported by a clear majority of Americans (usually by a margin of about 60 percent to 30). It doesn't matter that the Senate's ban is co-sponsored by pro-choice Sen. Mary Landrieu, as well as pro-life Sen. Sam Brownback. It doesn't matter that our European allies, usually cited to shame America's pitiful lack of progressivism, favor a cloning ban. It doesn't matter that pro-abortion lobbyists like NARAL have taken no stand and spent zero effort for the would-be cloners. All that matters is painting the president into that supposedly awful religious-right corner.
For his part, the President has tried to encourage the notion that this debate isn't just political, but is exploring a new moral frontier. His bioethics council was clearly not designed to be a rubber stamp. In July of 2002, its first report was split right down the middle on the desirability of cloning - seven in favor, seven opposed, and four willing to support a four-year moratorium.
If Bush wanted an echo chamber, he clearly wouldn't have put oh-so-progressive Dartmouth neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga on the council. In the report's appendix of personal statements, Gazzaniga quoted Oscar Wilde ("A man who moralizes is usually a hypocrite"), and welcomed the exploitation of the "no-brained blastocyst," which could be "ready to help the suffering of brain-alive children and adults." The press didn't note these remarks. Shallow and partisan, they used the report only to embarrass the president as politically unorganized.
The cloning debate is brand new and amazingly complex, uniting a different set of strange political bedfellows. Right-to-life groups are standing hand in hand with left-wing environmental groups like Friends of the Earth in opposing human cloning. In July of 2001, the House of Representatives overwhelming supported a ban by more than 100 votes, representing a spectrum from Tom DeLay to Bernie Sanders. But much to the delight of the kooky cloners, Tom Daschle smothered the ban in the Senate for a year and a half. Now, with a Republican Senate, perhaps the Congress will be able to send President Bush a cloning ban. It will be an important first test for Dr. Bill Frist.
But it will also be an occasion for the press to drop its shallow, partisan act. It could begin by copying the President's council, publicizing the best arguments of both sides. If it wants to be accurate as well as balanced, it will also embrace the council's terminology. Research cloning is not to be papered over in muddled mumbo-jumbo like "somatic cell nuclear transfer." Our laboratories may soon be full of experimental subjects who can only be biologically categorized as human beings.