Created on Thursday, 09 November 2006 14:11
New Jersey?s Fateful Ambition
Rev. Deacon (now Priest) Patrick Danielson
On January 4, 2004 New Jersey?s Catholic Governor, James McGreevey, signed what is unquestionably the most permissive stem-cell research law in the United States. The law is a fateful step in pursuit of Governor McGreevey?s goal of making New Jersey America?s leader in biomedical research. While the law is officially intended to make easier the acquisition of human stem cells for research and therapy, it is in fact a thinly disguised program for cloning human beings.
Ascribing motives to the actions of others is delicate business, especially when they have declared their intentions to be otherwise, but I think here we are on solid ground. In describing what New Jersey intends to permit, earlier drafts of the law identified ?the derivation and use of human embryonic stem cells, human embryonic germ cells [eggs taken from the ovaries of aborted girls] and human adult stem cells from any source, including somatic cell nuclear transplantation [cloning].? The final version omits the words ?from any source,? and goes on to forbid the cloning of a human being as a crime. This is most curious because the enabling language of the law clearly identifies cloning as a permissible means of producing embryonic stem cells and embryonic germ cells. This tension is resolved, however, when the writers of the bill define the meaning of the phrase ?cloning of a human being.? According to the state of New Jersey, cloning means ?the replication of a human individual by cultivating a cell with genetic material through the egg, embryo, fetal and newborn stages into a new human individual.? In other words, unless the process results in the delivery of a full-term baby, there has been no cloning of a human being. The careful scientist may thus avoid the crime of cloning in New Jersey by killing full-term clones just before birth.
This legal somersault is meant to take advantage of a distinction incorporated into federal legislation concerning human cloning. The distinction is between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Therapeutic cloning creates human embryos for research but does not seek to produce a post-gestational child. Delivering a full-term child would be reproductive cloning. The Government allows therapeutic cloning for research but forbids it for reproduction. The pestilence of this distinction was pointed out by the British Linacre Center for Health Care Ethics in a report to the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem-Cell Research. Put simply, all cloning is reproductive because it produces a new human being. The assumption behind therapeutic cloning is that a new human being doesn't exist until birth, but if this is true, then there is no point to abortion. The inescapable truth is that when sperm and egg unite, a new and heretofore unrepeatable human being has come into existence. The New Jersey law cynically exploits the weakness of the distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning allowing researchers to clone a human embryo, implant it in a woman, then study or exploit it all the way to full term so long as they kill the child before it is born.
This allows researchers to choose the time in fetal development when the best stem cells are available, but it also allows them to work out the technical problems involved in producing the clone in the first place (the techniques of egg enucleation and somatic-cell nuclear transfer are more delicate in humans than in other animals). Moreover, the techniques of uterine implantation of cloned embryos "need" more study, and New Jersey?s allowance of the full gestational period before a clone must be killed permits researchers to observe the sorts of abnormalities human clones are prone to express in gestation and to work out corrective measures. In short, the law aims at the perfection of the techniques of human cloning into a new "reproductive technology."
There is long-standing precedent for this approach. President Clinton?s National Bioethics Advisory Commission studied human cloning at some length and concluded that the pertinent ethical issues come to this: the technique is at present too experimental to be deemed safe for use in human reproduction. The Commission recommended that Congress ban ?reproductive? cloning but that it permit ?therapeutic? cloning. The Commission further recommended that any ban on reproductive cloning should expire in five years. By this device, Congress would be compelled to review the state of technology in five years to see if research had advanced to the point where reproductive cloning could be declared safe. If not, another five years, and so on until the time is right. In the meantime, thousands of human beings are created and destroyed. How can this practice be justified?
If there is a distinction in bioethics more pernicious than the one between therapeutic and reproductive cloning, it is that between a human body and a person. At the heart of this distinction is the belief that a human being is comprised of a thinking, willing self, who alone has rights and dignity, and a body that is merely the thinking thing?s instrument. The body does not share in the dignity of the mind and therefore has no rights. A human embryo is indeed a human body, a human being, but without a functioning mind it has no rights. We may therefore use it as an object of experiment without moral fault even if we kill it in the process. The fact that the embryo will one day be a person in the relevant sense is beside the point because we are permitted to consider only the status a human being at the present moment. Developmental potential is ruled out as morally insignificant. The only possible rational basis for this position is that it appears to justify the otherwise unjustifiable abuse of innocent human beings.
McGreevey?s law is an exercise of brute force against the innocent. It assumes that any act is permissible if the social or economic gain is large enough. New Jersey?s biomedical future may be new, but there is nothing brave about it.