The public square: a continuing survey of religion and public life.

Author:Neuhaus, Richard

A discussion of religion and public life is presented. Societal concerns, including human cloning, sex and marriage, and issues of sexuality, are described. The cloning debate has influenced the way some people view these subjects.



Born in February 1997, Dolly is two years old now, or maybe eight years old, because the cell used in cloning her was six years old at the time. Since Dr. Ian Wilmut announced Dolly to the world, some scientists have expressed skepticism about whether she really is a clone, though apparently most experts now concede she is. In any event, the announcement set off an enormous uproar in the media, and also occasioned reflection in more serious circles about the prospect of cloning not sheep but human beings. Two of the most notable reflections were by James Q. Wilson, "The Paradox of Cloning" in the Weekly Standard, and by Leon Kass in a long essay in the New Republic, "The Wisdom of Repugnance." Those articles, with a brief additional exchange between the authors, have now been brought together in an excellent little book, The Ethics of Human Cloning (American Enterprise Institute, 100 pp., $16.95).

Wilson of UCLA, author of books such as The Moral Sense (see FT review, November 1993), is a social scientist of rare moral attentiveness, and Kass of the University of Chicago, who has written frequently also in these pages, is simply one of the wisest and most morally serious people I have ever known. In his initial essay, Wilson concluded that, all things considered, we should not be alarmed by the prospect of human cloning. He acknowledged some dangers but wrote, "Provided certain conditions are met, the gains will turn out to exceed the risks." The chief condition is that "Cloning should be permitted only on behalf of two married partners, and the mother should--absent some medical condition that doctors must certify--carry the fertile tissue to birth." The intention is to make sure that the offspring "belong to the parents" and to prevent various misuses of cloning technology. He recognizes that "many devout Christians or Jews" will disagree: "I would ask of them only that they explain what it is about sexual fertilization that so affects God's judgment about the child that results."

Kass' "The Wisdom of Repugnance" is an article both much longer and more complex in its argument that we should respect and learn from our intuitive recoil at the separation of sex from fertility, and the replacement of procreation with the manufacture of children as a "product." (Wilson is a Catholic and Kass, by no means incidentally, is a Jew.) Both original essays are very much worth a careful reading, but I will confine myself to the further exchange in the new book. Kass writes that he does not think that the practice of cloning could be limited in the way that Wilson suggests, but his objections go further than that. "I regard cloning to be in itself a form of child abuse, even if no one complains, and a deep violation of our given nature as gendered and engendering beings."

There is a critical methodological difference between the two thinkers. Kass notes that Wilson has elsewhere written perceptively about the importance of a "prearticulate human moral sense," but in this case Wilson does not trust "his own sense of moral disquiet and sets out to explain it with reasons." As any parent knows, the child's question "Why not?" is often hard to answer. Wilson asks "Why not cloning?" and cannot come up with an answer that he finds convincing. Kass writes: "Whether he intends it or not, that move places the burden of proof on those who object to cloning rather than on the proponents. Worse, it requires that the reasons offered be finally acceptable to utilitarians who measure only in terms of tangible harms and benefits but who are generally blind to the deeper meaning of things." Kass, too, employs utilitarian--or what might be called consequentialist--arguments, but he wants to keep our attention fixed on "the deeper meaning of things."

Wilson's initial essay was impatient with such ponderings, and he was particularly dismissive of theologians who would worry about whether a cloned baby would have a soul. Kass is equally impatient with what he views as Wilson's "superficial" treatment of philosophical and religious considerations. "No thoughtful theologian," Kass responds, "objects to assisted reproduction because it limits God's power to inculcate a human soul; theologians worry not about the impotence of God but about the hubris of man." He cites Anglican Oliver O'Donovan's Begotten or Made?, Methodist Paul Ramsey's Fabricated Man, and the Vatican's instruction on "The Dignity of Procreation" as representative of the kind of thinking to which Wilson might pay attention.

In favor of cloning, Wilson had noted that in vitro fertilization had also been viewed as "ethically suspect" at first, but is now socially accepted. Kass responds: "Does the growing social acceptability of sodomy or adultery constitute a refutation of Leviticus 18:22 or the Seventh Commandment?" (That's the sixth for you Catholics and Lutherans.) "The arrival of cloning, far from gaining legitimacy from the precedent of in vitro fertilization," Kass writes, "should rather awaken those who previously saw no difficulty with starting human life in petri dishes." It is notoriously difficult these days to make an argument from what is "natural," but Kass urges that we attend to nature's "possibly normative pointings."

Is the Issue Sex or Marriage?

A friend suggested to Kass that the difference between him and Wilson on these matters is that he is chiefly concerned about human sexuality while Wilson's main concern is with marriage and family. Not quite, responds Kass. "[That] difference is more apparent than real, especially if one understands the generative meaning of sexuality and, even more, if one sees that one will be increasingly incapable of defending the institution of marriage and the two-parent family if one is indifferent to its natural grounding in what I call the ontology of sex. Can we ensure, even in thought, that all children will have two parents if we ignore, in our social arrangements, the natural (hetero) sexual ground of parenthood?"

In his original article, Kass said that a clone, because asexually reproduced and lacking two parents, is a single-parent child. He now writes that "it would be more accurate to say that, since it is the twin rather than the offspring of its `source,' it has no parents, biologically speaking--unless its `parents' are the mother and father of the person from whom it was cloned." There are other realworld consequences. "Virtually no parent is going to be able to treat a clone of himself or herself as one does a child generated by the lottery of sex. The new life will constantly be scrutinized in relation to that of the older copy. The child is likely to be ever a curiosity, ever a potential source of deja vu." And what about the look-alike copy of one parent when there are tensions in the marriage or the parents divorce? "Will mommy still love the clone of daddy?"

Kass does not hesitate to invoke the slippery slope, an image much mocked by those who hold that one thing does not usually follow from another. Prenatal screening, sex selection, the normalization of deviancy, and the eugenic implications of new reproductive technologies--cloning in particular--are all upon us. But Wilson says not to worry, so long as we hold fast to marriage and family. "Given the state of our culture," observes Kass, "it is rather late in the sexual day for Professor Wilson's call to rally the family wagons to protect the little beloved clone."

Kass' conclusion is nothing if not definite: "Even if human cloning is rarely undertaken, a society in which it is tolerated is no longer the same society--any more than is a society that permits (even small-scale) incest or cannibalism or slavery. It is a society that has forgotten how to shudder, that always rationalizes away the abominable. A society that allows cloning has, whether it knows it or not, tacitly said yes to converting procreation into manufacture and to treating our children as pure projects of our will. Indeed, the principles here legitimated could--and will--be used to legitimate the entire humanitarian superhighway to Brave New World. Professor Wilson's sweet reasonableness of today will come back to haunt him, once he sees what he has unknowingly said yes to. Better he should trust his immediate moral sense."

Professor Wilson gets the last word in this exchange. The "essential difference" between them, he says, is that Kass views the meaning of children in relation to sexuality while he views it in relation to the family. However the child is brought into being, Wilson's concern is whether "the child is likely to do well." "If Dr. Kass thinks that sexuality is more important than families, then he would object to any form of assisted reproduction that does not involve parental coition." One notes that the choice between sexuality and families is a false one, and Kass has already said that cloning should occasion long second thoughts about assisted reproduction in general. Wilson cites a number of studies indicating that children conceived by artificial means (although not, of course, children who have been cloned) do, in fact, generally do well. And that's the only thing that matters.

Arguments and Preferences

Well, not quite. In a somewhat marginally relevant discussion of surrogate motherhood and a case where the woman bearing the child refused to give it up to the couple with whom she had contracted, Wilson disagrees with the court that awarded the child to the couple. "The central fact was that she was the baby's mother.... The child belonged to its mother, period." He continues, "Some critics of my view would say that surrogacy is appropriate if the birth mother receives both egg and sperm from the parents who are to own the child. That mistakes genetic similarity for the birth effect." These things are asserted but not argued. I agree with the assertions but am impressed that Wilson seems to take them as self-evidently, dare...

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