WHEN the history of the 21st century comes to be written, Sunday November 25th is likely to contribute at least a footnote, and possibly the start of a chapter. That was the day when a previously obscure Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), announced in an equally obscure on-line journal that it had cloned the first human embryo.
Whether this is a scientific milestone remains doubtful (see article). The company was not trying to create a human being (reproductive cloning, in the jargon), just an embryo, from which it could derive stem cells (therapeutic cloning). Stem cells, which can transform themselves into any of the body’s tissues, promise cures for degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s. But the company got nowhere near that aim. All the embryos died and it is unclear whether the company prompted the eggs to produce any new cells. No wonder the professor who chairs the ACT‘s ethics board cautiously described the cells not as “embryos” at all but merely as “cleaving eggs”. Nonetheless, for a few hours, the first making of a human life was stirring in a test tube, put there by genetic manipulation.
For many people, this was an enormously significant point: a toe across a fuzzy line into uncharted territory beyond. After all, Columbus got the credit for discovering a place that purists might argue he never really reached.
Certainly, while the scientists have equivocated and nit-picked, the response of America’s politicians has been straightforward and fierce—particularly from conservative opponents of abortion. George Bush took time off from the war to criticise the research as “morally wrong” and called on the Senate to ban cloning (which the House has already voted to do). “Let’s be clear,” thundered Dick Armey, the Republican majority leader in the House, “we are in a race to prevent amoral, scientifically suspect tinkering with the miracle and sanctity of life.”
All very predictable—and overly simple. For behind this bombast lies an uncomfortable fact: the politics, ethics and even theology of the unborn are getting much more complicated. Nobody knows this better than Mr Bush himself, who spent much of this summer agonising over whether to allow federal money to support stem-cell research that used discarded embryos—and decided to let it continue. Several anti-abortion senators support stem-cell research because it may help to save lives, which explains why the Senate leadership is reluctant to hold a vote soon on banning cloning.
Nor is it just a matter of satisfying Republican lobby groups. The knee-jerk reaction against cloning this week made no attempt to distinguish therapeutic cloning from reproductive cloning. Plenty of those who normally support scientific progress, including this newspaper, are uneasy about reproductive cloning. In the words of Leon Kass, the head of Mr Bush’s new bioethics panel, it “turns procreation into manufacture”. It also requires trial runs which—if the experience of animal cloning is anything to go by—will involve the deaths of thousands of implanted cloned embryos and countless deformed babies. Those seem decent reasons for a moratorium on reproductive cloning.
Therapeutic cloning is different. Here the main objection is a simple theological one. Stem cells created from embryos allowed to live until 14 days (the usual limit for therapeutic cloning) may have marvellous medical benefits. But if you believe, as many people do, that life begins at the moment of conception (or, in the case of cloning, the moment of the first cell division), then you have to oppose every type of cloning.
Yet many Americans find this absolutism difficult; and they do distinguish between the two different sorts. Nine out of ten oppose baby cloning, with its images of Dr Frankenstein and glowing test tubes. But when it comes to balancing the loss of an embryonic life against the possible saving of a life blighted by Parkinson’s, diabetes or worse, they seem more divided. A slim majority supports research on the spare stem cells left over in fertility clinics. Yet, arguably, pro-lifers should be even more adamantly opposed to therapeutic cloning (which destroys an embryo) than to reproductive cloning, which lets it live.
Define your terms
Could anything help to find a way through these conflicting views on embryo research? Yes, as it happens. The starting point is that people, understandably, feel less queasy about playing God with a handful of cells than they do about meddling with a recognisable human being—a feeling that shows most clearly in the abortion debate, where many more people oppose late-term abortions than early ones.
The helpful theory is an alternative theological view of “life”, called “quickening”, that predates the modern pro-life view. Quickening was acknowledged in Aristotle’s “Politics” and medieval Christian doctrine, as well as being codified in English common law. It held that life begins when the mother can first feel the kick of her baby, usually at around four months (before the point at which the baby is viable). More broadly, it held that there is no single moment when life can be said to begin with certainty: it comes about through a process of quickening.
Obviously, there is no scientific validity for this belief. But it makes good psychological and common sense (ask any mother), and was not rejected by the Catholic church until 1884. Its legal applicability may be limited, but, as a rule of thumb, it has certain advantages. It would allow people to oppose cloning humans on principle, but support therapeutic cloning on the grounds that this involves experiments on cells that do not yet have a human life. It even makes it possible to say these things without taking a firm view on when exactly you think life begins. The concept of quickening may not, perhaps, change many Americans’ minds. But an idea that mirrors what most people seem to feel anyway may yet have a political use.