The rights revolution that previously brought you homeless people sleeping on sidewalks and the mentally ill babbling on street corners appears poised to triumph with yet another constitutionally protected right: the right to have ourselves cloned.
Last February, after Dolly the lamb—the world's first successfully cloned animal—grabbed headlines, many scientists and ethicists raised moral and practical doubts about the cloning of human beings. Responding to this uncertain, even apprehensive, mood, President Clinton banned government funding for human cloning. But in our high-tech age, ten months is plenty of time for a "paradigm shift," to borrow the language of Al Gore's favorite thinker, Thomas Kuhn. And according to a December New York Times article, we have witnessed "an enormous change in attitudes in just a few months." The government has begun to support research on cloning monkeys, and once squeamish scientists are now asking: "Why not?"
We should have seen this coming. From the outset, researchers neutralized talk of mad scientists toiling in Frankenstein's laboratory with a dose of good humor. Scientists named Dolly—cloned from her parent's mammary gland—after mega-mammaried Dolly Parton; they called the first calf cloned from an embryo . . . well, Gene. The media added to the laughs with headlines like HELLO DOLLY and CLONE ON THE RANGE!
Today, supporters cast human cloning as just another in a diverse but familiar series of technologically advanced reproductive rights, including in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and embryo implantation. Gone are the science-fiction scenarios of reborn billionaires, megalomaniacs and sextuplet Hitlers. Instead, the Times relates heart rending tales of parents who want to reproduce their terminally ill child, women who suffer from infertility, and a husband and wife who both suffer from infertility. Not that we necessarily need the strings softly playing: as the Times article breezily reminds us, "it is an American tradition to allow people to reproduce in any way they like."
The shallowness of the discussion may be inevitable, since it is dominated by lawyers and doctors—the very folks with the most to gain from the new rights and new technology. As we know from hard experience, the law tends to squeeze a moral problem dry of all but its constitutional rind. The sole question then becomes: "Can we constitutionally prohibit cloning?" Dr. Steen Willadsen, the Danish pioneer of cloning techniques (he now works in New Jersey), put it best when he observed, "America is not ruled by ethics. It is ruled by law."
Further promoting this merely pragmatic approach to human cloning, gay activists see in the new technology an answer to the conundrum of homosexual reproduction. Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe, in a Times op-ed published shortly after the paper's December cloning article, predictably argued that to oppose cloning might be to surrender to oppressive notions of what is, as he would no doubt scare-quote it, "natural." And Tribe ingenuously introduced yet another minority so aggrieved that nobody yet knows it exists: stigmatized children, products of an inevitable black market in human clones.
As for the scientific community, their pragmatic question—is it doable?—also creeps closer to a thumbs-up answer. Discoveries laying groundwork for human cloning are coming so quickly that everyone seems to have forgotten the freak calves, failed clones weighing a massive 150 pounds each, born at a Texas company in 1992. They—or something more frightening—may come back to haunt us yet.