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Therapeutic Cloning, Moral Principle, Gut Reactions, and Nationalism:

I post on this warily, because I'm not an expert on the technology of therapeutic cloning. I can't, for instance, speak with any confidence about whether embryonic stem cells would end up being superior to adult stem cells that can be gotten without creating new embryos. Also, while I assume for the purposes of the post that the ban on federal funding of therapeutic cloning research would handicap such research (as I think it's intended to), I'm not positive that this is so (though I do think that it's likely perceived to be so, which is what's important for my political predictions below). Still, I thought I'd pass along some tentative thoughts I had about the subject, and particularly about what is likely to happen, rather than what should happen.

I understand people's misgivings about creating human embryos for the purpose of harvesting their cells and then destroying them. It's viscerally troubling (at least to me); and it may well change people's attitudes in a way that makes still more troubling things (e.g., creating clones to harvest organs, and the like) possible. And I understand why people wouldn't just find it troubling and potentially dangerous, but per se immoral (though I don't agree with this view).

But let's say that (1) the Koreans or someone else discover that (2) therapeutic cloning is indeed medically effective at curing many dangerous diseases, and (3) it is more effective than any alternatives that don't involve therapeutic cloning. This will of course change the moral calculus in some measure: There are moral costs to foregoing the technology as well as potential moral costs to using it.

And, perhaps as importantly, it seems to me that it will change the political calculus dramatically, for two reasons. First, my sense is that while some people feel very strongly about abstract principles and long-term consequences, most people are much more moved by the tangible and the visible. An ultrasound of a fetus that is 4 months past conception shows something that's visibly like a baby; I think that's part of why many people have misgivings about second-trimester abortions. But when most people look at a clump of cells, they don't have the same visceral reaction. Some or even many might have an intellectual reaction, based on their moral views or their concerns about slippery slopes. But I doubt most people feel an embryo's humanity in their gut the same way that most people feel a born child's — or even an ultrasound-visible mature fetus's — humanity in our guts.

Second is the nationalism. Americans like to lead the world, in science, in wealth, in influence. If people start flocking to Korea to get cured, if Koreans start getting the key patents and making billions from exploiting them (perhaps even in the U.S., but certainly in the rest of the world), and if other countries compete with Korea while the U.S. is left behind, will enough Americans really hold the line on their abstract moral principles to sustain an American funding ban? So while America's religious sensibilities may cut in favor of restrictions on therapeutic cloning (or at least restrictions on federally funding it), America's sense of its place in the world will cut against such restrictions.

And the two points reinforce each other, it seems to me. If therapeutic cloning were clearly, viscerally felt to be evil — for instance, if it involved the killing of born babies — then I think more people would hold the line on the moral issue. (They may also have less fear that the U.S. will be falling behind, because then there'll be more likelihood that the U.S. and other countries could stop this practice, even overseas.) But if I'm right that most people, even many who disapprove of therapeutic cloning, don't oppose it that deeply, then the nationalistic concerns may have much more of an effect.

As I mentioned at the outset, I'm not making a claim here about what should be done. Perhaps my post describes a bug in human moral thinking, not a feature. Perhaps we should feel abstract moral concerns as deeply as (or more deeply than) we feel our visceral reactions. And perhaps we should quite ignore nationalistic and economic concerns when it comes to matters such as this. But whatever should be the case, I think that — on the assumptions I give above — the political dynamic is very much on the side of the pro-therapeutic-cloning forces.

UPDATE: Just to make things clear, what I say above of course goes even more strongly for proposals to actually outlaw (rather than simply not fund) therapeutic cloning.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on Stem Cells:
  2. Therapeutic Cloning, Moral Principle, Gut Reactions, and Nationalism:
More on Stem Cells:

Nick Gillespie (Hit & Run) has a very interesting and thoughtful post on how these issues tend to practically play out.