It’s a funny business, bioethics. I’d never really before now looked into what it is that people called bioethicists do – but the more I do so, the more it feels that their job is basically to offer personal opinions with a professionalized aura. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about that – practising scientists tend to spend too little time thinking hard about ethical issues (beyond the basic stuff of plagiarism, fabricating data and so forth), so it is good that someone does it. And when this kind of ‘op ed’ discourse is conducted with considered philosophical rigour, and/or informed by a humane and open-minded perspective, it seems potentially to have a lot to recommend it. But from what I’ve seen so far, it strikes me as a very mixed bag.
I’ve currently been grappling with the views of Laurie Zoloth on human cloning. Zoloth is no ringside commentator, but wields considerable clout as the Director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University. And this is what makes me kind of surprised.
Her position is laid out in ‘Born again: faith and yearning in the cloning controversy’, a chapter in Cloning and the Future of Human Embryo Research, ed. P. Lauritzen (OUP, 2001). This essay is also available online (in more or less verbatim form) here. The title goes a long way towards articulating her position. Human cloning, she believes, is all about a yearning to avoid death, and thus a narcissistic impulse to produce a copy of oneself.
Now, this is very odd. You can imagine this being the impression of someone outside the mainstream of the debate, particularly someone intuitively opposed to the idea. And there are good reasons to feel unease at the idea of reproductive cloning in humans, even in the face of the cogent arguments that Ronald Green puts forward, in the same book, in its favour. But Green makes it clear that the principal motivation for reproductive cloning is as another variant of assisted conception, alongside conventional IVF. It might be used, for example, in cases where couples wanted to have a genetically related child but either the man or the woman had no gametes at all. One can see the arguments: is it, for example, really any more potentially confusing for a child to know fully about their genetic heritage (and parentage) than to know only half of that equation in the case of anonymous gamete donation? And cloning would also offer female couples who want to conceive a child the same potential advantage over sperm donation. Of course, that opens up another can of worms in some eyes, and all the more so if one considers male homosexual couples using surrogacy for gestation. But I’m not going to argue (here) about whether such reproductive cloning is justified; the point is that the parental wish for a genetically related child, rather than for a ‘copy’ of oneself, is the motive force behind arguments supporting it. Sure, it’s possible to contend that the wish for any genetic relation to a child is itself narcissistic – and this then is a kind of narcissism displayed by the majority of the human race, and universally accepted as a ‘natural’ human desire.
Zoloth also takes on the issue of cloning performed to ‘replace’ a dead child. She movingly describes a situation in which she could appreciate this wish, but in which she could also see that the better response was to confront the anguish of the loss. Notwithstanding the fact that there is no law or intervention that prevents parents from conceiving another child ‘normally’ in response to such a tragedy, I think few would dispute that attempts to ‘replace’ a dead child are never a healthy thing. But both here and in the case of efforts to cheat one’s own mortality through cloning, the simple fact is that such actions are deluded in any event from a scientific point of view. This isn’t, as Zoloth implies, a case of science offering the temptation and bioethicists advising us to resist. Any scientist worthy of the description who knows the first thing about genetics will be the first to point out that genetically identical individuals are not in any meaningful sense ‘the same’. In her comments here, Zoloth tacitly endorses the myth of genetic determinism that scientists are always at pains to dismantle.
It seems extraordinary that a leading bioethicist would labour under these misconceptions. Naturally, if you’re temperamentally opposed to human cloning then it makes strategic sense to pick the worst possible reason for doing it in order to argue the case against. But one might question the ethics of doing so, if done intentionally. If done unintentionally, the issue is then one of competence.
What I’ve noticed in several of the critiques of the new reproductive technologies and of human embryo research is a shameful evasion of plain speaking. Time and again, one can see where the argument is inevitably heading, but the critic will not spell that out, for what one can only assume is fear of saying something unpopular. Instead, they take refuge in woolly, wise-sounding rhetoric that masks the real message. They present their criticisms – and some are, without doubt, well motivated – but decline to explain what their alternative would be. So then, for example, Zoloth says that ‘advanced reproductive technology’ relies on the notion of infertility as a disease, which must then of course be ‘cured’. This is a valid criticism: there are real dangers of setting up a situation in which people consider it their ‘right’ to have any medical treatment that will offer them the chance of conceiving a child – and in the process having their condition pathologized. But to simply say this and leave it at that is to dismiss the plight of infertility all together – to imply that ‘you just have to learn to live with it’, or perhaps, ‘you’ll just have to adopt then’ (from a greatly diminished pool, for both social and medical reasons). Zoloth nowhere acknowledges that infertility has always been seen as a problem – not just today but in the times to which she looks for the ‘wisdom of ages’. How can it possibly be that someone who makes so much of her Jewish heritage seems oblivious to the ‘disgrace’ that Rachel felt when she could bear Jacob no children (until God relented, that is). (Mind you, Zoloth’s theology seems to hold other surprises – for can it really be the case that, as she suggests, Noah is now the object of rabbinical criticism for thinking only of his wife and children and not arguing with God about the injustice of destroying the rest of his community? Sounds like a good point to me, but can it really be the case that Jewish theologists now think one should be prepared to pick arguments with God? Wild.)
So then, the unspoken text of Zoloth’s essay is that infertility is a bad roll of the dice that you have to learn to put up with. At least, I think that’s what it is. She doesn’t put it like that, of course. She puts it like this: we must look for a ‘refinement of imperfection, not the a priori obliteration of imperfection. In this, we could serve to remind [sic] of something else: of the blinding power of human love, which sees and knows, right through the brokenness’. Got that?
If I’m right in my interpretation, this doesn’t seem to offer a great deal of empathy for people who encounter infertility. Oh, but that’s mild – for elsewhere Zoloth says that ‘The hunger of the infertile is ravenous, desperate’. There are more offensive things you can say to infertile people, but not by very much.
Well then, sic indeed – for there are times when you have to wonder quite what has happened to her prose and grammar. I suspected at first if there might be a first-language issue here – if so, all criticisms are retracted – but it doesn’t look that way. Rather, one has to suspect the old post-modernist problem of language becoming a casualty of a reluctance to be truly understood. Sometimes this tension creates an utter car-crash of metaphors. For example, in telling us how parents must reject the desire for a ‘close-as-can-be-replica’ (see above), she says they must ‘earn to have the stranger, not the copy, live by our side as though out of our side’. As though what? What else can ‘out of our side’ evoke if not, after all, a clone? And indeed, the first of all clones, Eve made from Adam’s rib! Why plunge us into that thicket? Does she really mean to? Please, what is going on? (Notice here that ‘copy’ = product of one parent’s genome alone; ‘stranger’ = product of both parents’ genomes. There is some odd asymptotic calculus here, quite aside from the fact that a ‘copy’ of one parent’s genome is surely then far more of a ‘stranger’ to the other parent.)
Then how about this: ‘We need to reflect on the meaning not only of the performance gesture of cloning but also the act of the imagination that surrounds the act in popular culture.’ Now, here’s a statement I do actually endorse; but what a tortured way to put it. Indeed, that is the very aim, in a sense, of the book for which I’m reading all this stuff. And it’s therefore with some gladness of heart that I see Zoloth giving me material to work on. ‘The whole point of ‘making babies’’, she says, ‘is not the production, it is the careful rearing of persons, the promise to have bonds of love that extend far beyond the initial ask and answer of the marketplace.’ How true. And how interesting, then, that for her the hypothetical cloned human (and, to pursue the logic, already the IVF baby) becomes not a person who can be born and reared with love but a mere product of the marketplace. That assumption, that prejudice, is just the thing that interests me.