Cloning and Politics

Jeff Bone jbone@jump.net
Mon, 03 Dec 2001 22:48:34 -0600


Robert Harley wrote:

> I don't think that splitting hairs on terminology is particularly
> productive.

It's right to the point.  All of these words:  human, embryo, etc. --- have
meanings which become ambiguous in light of technical and political change.  Is
a human-animal hybrid "human?"  Japan's going to blaze the trail for us on that
one.  Is a pre-blastocystic human "embryo" human?  If the law just says
"embryo," then what about otherwise-viable in vitro fertilizations that parents
choose not to have.

> Anyway, take for instance the Fed's definition as any
> organism, not already protected as a human subject, "that is derived
> by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning, or any other means from
> one or more human gametes or human diploid cells."

That definition would criminalize the very common activity mentioned above,
i.e. discarding in vitro embryos that parents choose not to implant.

> So now define "organism"... but first define "define".  Maybe it
> depends on what the meaning of "is" is...

Really, this is about more than picking semantic nits.  The language here has
to support both law enforcement and the reproductive (and scientific and
medical) judgement of those impacted by such law.  It should be as
non-ambiguous as possible.

> >But even better:  define "genetically human."
>
> Verily, Sirrah, methinks this herring is very reddish!

Not so much.  Again, Japan's about to blaze that trail for us.

> Maybe someday people will splice glow-in-the-dark genes into their
> kids.

I'd bet on that one being a very popular elective alteration in a generation or
so.

> In any case, evolution will eventually change us unrecognizably.

Not nearly as unrecognizably as we will change ourselves by directed mutation.

> But I don't think that in my lifetime there will be much of an issue
> about what species a sort-of-human something-or-other is.

Yup, and your grampa never thought he'd see men on the moon in his lifetime,
either...  Not only that, but technology-induced change is *accelerating* over
time.  Get ready for future shock.  The only think certain in our lifetimes is
that there will be a tremendous amount of change.

> >Does "human organism" imply "possesses all customary human rights?"
> >Is that the basic premise, that all human organisms have a right to
> >life, etc?
>
> That's a completely different question.  In fact it's orthogonal to
> "what is human life and what isn't" except insofar as denying that an
> organism is human in the first place makes it easy to refuse it any
> rights.

In other words, it isn't orthogonal at all;  the rights question is *dependent*
on the definition of human.

> To answer your question: no I don't think all human organisms have the
> same rights.  E.g., I am in favour of euthanasia: someone in immense
> pain has the right to assisted death whereas others don't (NB: "life's
> a bitch" and the like don't count as immense pain :).

Really?  Who are you to make that decision for someone else?

> However as a former embryo, I would protest if you claimed that they
> have no rights at all.  Do you think so?

Yes, I think so.  Human embryos have no rights at all --- beyond those we,
particularly the mothers, grant them.  Indeed, I don't believe that *humans*
have any "natural" rights at all beyond those that are mutually exchanged.
(See previous posts on this evolving position I'm trying to take. ;-)

> Would you consider it OK to
> stroll into a fertility clinic, tip over a petri-dish full of embryos
> and squash them?

Oops, that's too bad.  But wait --- there might perhaps be economic
consequences for the clinic, the parents.  You might want to consider those.

> Oooh... like caviar... and they pop when you squish
> them... neat!  Would that be the moral equivalent of stepping on ants?

Even less.  An ant is, at least, an independent and fully functional
individual.  The embryos in question are a particularly specialized form of
tumor intended to help propagate genes.

> Would their parents agree?  (Now please excuse me while I go vomit).

I really don't care whether the parents agree or not, beyond whatever economic
considerations are involved.  I.e. "damn you, that was $20,000 and six months
worth of work on our part, pay up!"  Ok, fine.  But "damn you, look, you've
gone and killed my future child, you evil man" is superstitious nonsense.

> Children are not fully human???

I think it's open for debate.  Again, what do we mean by human?  I've proposed
a strawman:  ability to solve typical 1st-year calculus problems.  Any decision
on what it means to be human should be existential and experiential in nature,
and given that, it's going to be arbitrary.  Anything other than an existential
/ experiential definition will cause grave problems in the long run.  (SAI?
Uploads?  Corpsicles?  Furries?  Etc. etc. etc.)

> You just jumped from rights to responsibilities.

IMO, they go hand in hand.  If I acknowledge that you have a given right ---
say, to not be smacked upside the head --- then I have a responsibility to not
smack you upside the head.

> Do I have the right
> to smack you upside the head or is that a responsibility?  :)

Just the opposite.  If you believe you have a right to not be smacked upside
the head by me, then you have a responsibility to not smack me upside the
head.  Some of the faith-based traditions we've been jawing about actually got
this one right: "do unto others" is an optimal proactive strategy.  OTOH,
clearly Jesus didn't understand game theory, because "turn the other cheek" is
a losing proposition;  everybody knows that "tit-for-tat" is a better strategy
reactive overall.

> >Or --- do we have different "levels" of human rights, [...]
> >perhaps there is a stage where "right to life" does not apply...
>
> I think it always applies, but certainly with different levels.

How does one have "half" a right to life?

> An unimplanted zygote is different from an 8-month-old fetus is different
> from a 5-year-old child is different from a 30-year-old babe is
> different from a 60-year-old man is different from a 90-year-old
> brain-dead patient.  Obviously.

Sigh.  Of course, that's what all your kind believes.  The problem is that this
position is untenable;  it's a slippery slope to an absolutely context-driven
morality.  At the end of the day, every person is different, and any given
person is different in each situation they encounter.  We have to draw the line
somewhere ---- and the line is likely to be arbitrary.  IMO, minimization of
arbitrariness is a goal in the construction of a moral / ethical / legal
system.  Why not look for more powerful primitive operations and abstractions?

> when there appear to be alternatives available
> such as culturing pre-existing cell lines or collecting
> semi-specialized stem cells from consenting adults.

Yes, that's the point of view OF THE POLITICIANS.  Note that I don't see too
many stem-cell researchers jumping up and down the "alternatives" presented by
pre-existing cell lines.

> At least spend
> some years researching the latter two before considering the former.

Why?  I hate this "we need time" argument.  It's bullshit, it usually ignores
*years* of research and thought and debate that preceded political awareness of
the topic.  It's nothing but a stalling tactic intended to kill off a research
community, dry up research dollars, etc.  I would rather the moral busybodies
go ahead and outlaw something --- put a stake in the ground which can be
challenged constitutionally or through other means --- rather than mealy-mouth
around and covertly kill off research in the process.

> They are also the least reliable i.e., a woman who uses them for a
> decade (say) would have reasonable chance of having a pregnancy,
> presumably unwanted, and she may have an abortion (ooh... the A word).

By "may" do you mean that you grant her that right, or that she might
potentially want to choose such an option?

> In the interest of all those (potentially) involved,

Oh, so you mean the mother?

> I think that
> combined pills are to be recommended, or else use a condom too.

Good grief.  Come on, let's just get to the point and outlaw "fun" entirely,
what say?

jb