Second Thoughts on Cloning

David Blankenhorn, National Catholic Register, 5/10/1998

Any larger notion of what it means to be a human – any understanding of "natural" that extends beyond this little unencumbered self – is consigned by Tribe to the dustbin of vagueness, tradition, religion, and (what for Tribe is pretty much the same thing) bigotry. Tribe does not explicitly spell out this definition. But without the support of this understanding of who we are, Tribe's "second thoughts" would be unsustainable. For the modem person of Western civilization at the end of this century, there are only two creation stories. One story takes place in the Garden of Eden, as told in the Book of Genesis. The other takes place in the State of Nature, as told by John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and the other 18th-century philosophers of the Enlightenment and creators of Anglo-American liberalism

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Subject: Civil Society

More by: David Blankenhorn

It seems important, at least to the editors of The New York Times, for us to know that Professor Lawrence Tribe of the Harvard Law School is having "second thoughts" regarding the prohibition of human cloning. Several years ago, he "leaned toward prohibition as the safest course." But today he is "inclined" to say: "Not so fast."

Why the change? Tribe is reluctant to endorse legal or social distinctions based on beliefs about what is "natural." Such beliefs, he worries, are "vague." They are also intertwined with tradition and conventional morality. Some of them are even connected to religion. In addition, the notion that some institutions and practices are naturally suited to humans – that they properly fit who we are – can lead to the stigmatizing of institutions and practices that are deemed unnatural. In the unenlightened old days, Tribe reminds us we used to do this all the time: "One need only think of the long struggle to overcome the stigma of 'illegitimacy' for the children of unmarried parents."

Finally, a society that endorses some things as "natural" will "risk cutting itself off from vital experimentation," including lifestyle experimentation. In the case of cloning, the immediate victims of non-experimentation would be all those "with unconventional ways of linking erotic attachment, romantic commitment, genetic replication, gestational mothering, and the joys and responsibilities of child rearing." To me, this argument flows inevitably from Tribe's unstated but implicit definition of the human person. For Tribe, we humans (at least in the United States) are what John Rawls calls "self-originating sources of valid claims." We are autonomous units of desires, rights, and legitimate values of our own choosing. Each of us is called to shape his own teleology. We create ourselves like artists paint, each working on a separate canvas. I may choose to paint a life in which I marry and, through sexual union with my wife, become the father of our child. Or I may choose to paint a life in which, through cloning, I engage in asexual reproduction, intentionally producing a single-parent child, perhaps even a child who is also my identical twin.

Any larger notion of what it means to be a human – any understanding of "natural" that extends beyond this little unencumbered self – is consigned by Tribe to the dustbin of vagueness, tradition, religion, and (what for Tribe is pretty much the same thing) bigotry. Tribe does not explicitly spell out this definition. But without the support of this understanding of who we are, Tribe's "second thoughts" would be unsustainable.

For the modem person of Western civilization at the end of this century, there are only two creation stories. One story takes place in the Garden of Eden, as told in the Book of Genesis. The other takes place in the State of Nature, as told by John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and the other 18th-century philosophers of the Enlightenment and creators of Anglo-American liberalism.

In one story, humans are God's children, created in God's likeness and image, and called by God into special relationships with one another and into a covenant with God. In this accounting of who we are, humans are free to seek and understand the truth about themselves, and even free to reject the truth, but they are not free – here I believe is the meaning of the forbidden fruit – to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, since the power to make the moral law is God's alone.

In the other story, humans leave the state of nature (where life is cruel and short) and contract with one another to create civilization. They do so because they choose to do so and because it is in their interest to do so. In this accounting, there is no natural human teleology and there is no forbidden fruit. In one story, the very idea of human cloning is repugnant. In the other, simply to ask the basic question – "Why not?" – is to know that the eventual answer will be: "Yes, let's do it. We can eat of that tree."

Of course, I am telling these stories simplistically. I am overly polarizing them. I am even ignoring the fact that our own national creation story – the story told in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – draws deeply from both the Garden of Eden and the Enlightenment.

But the essential distinction remains. Moreover, Tribe is clearly on one extreme. By accepting only the unencumbered self – by insisting that one creation story must always and totally trump the other – Tribe announces his position on cloning, and on most other issues as well, before the question is asked.

One final point, drawn largely from Leon Kass' recent essay on cloning. Tribe's defense of cloning depends upon society's acceptance of individual freedom and individual rights as basic social goods. This acceptance, in turn, stems from our belief in the dignity of the individual: the idea that the human person is the subject of society and is an end in itself, never merely an object or an instrument for some other end. Yet the essence of cloning is objectification and instrumentalism – using some of my genes to produce a little replica of me, for my purposes. Human reproduction thus becomes very much like manufacturing, just as new people come ever closer to becoming commodities.

Such a transformation radically undermines the very concept of human dignity. In this sense, cloning inches us further toward what can be called, paradoxically and literally, self-destruction. Undertaking cloning in the name of the sovereign self ends up destroying any notion of the dignity of the self.

This article originally appeared here.

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