Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality

Saving the Planet with Clones

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, June 17, 1997—

  Ban human cloning! That was the mandate given to Congress last week by a panel of frightened scientists hopelessly grasping yesterday's ethical foundations as they rapidly crumble beneath them. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission recommended banning federal funds to institutions engaging in human cloning research— a direct response to the successful cloning of an adult sheep by Scottish scientists. The cloning accomplishment itself is far less important than the uproar it inspired; for the first time ever, the general public is considering issues that will one day reshape the social framework of the modern world.

  We take for granted that our children are created by a natural process that we understand but only minimally control. Without thinking, most people conclude that this is the sole morally correct way to reproduce. They unquestioningly accept the sometimes horrific reality of natural reproduction, including debilitating birth defects and fatal inherited diseases. The same traditionalists are quick to decry the dark side of the use of reproductive technology. Science, they say, would give the world a new race of identical superman clones while marginalizing a colorfully diverse population of naturally conceived people.

  Traditionalists will pass more laws. They will campaign for natural family values. They will ruthlessly ostracize those who deviate from their natural order. Though they will undoubtedly slow the rate of change, they will ultimately lose.

  Already, parents are using science to alter the physical characteristics of their children. Test-tube sex selection has existed for over a decade. Mothers are spending thousands of dollars administering human growth hormone to their sons— giving height to those who would otherwise be of more moderate stature. Is there any doubt that these mothers would use safer and more effective genetic engineering techniques to accomplish the same goal? Implementation of such technology, legal or not, is a virtual certainty; it is only a matter of time.

  Pressures for parents to use these technologies is certain to grow. As the economy becomes more and more high tech, we are told that industry will require a better educated workforce. But education is only part of the story. Boeing, Microsoft and other technology companies are not clamoring for liberal arts graduates with knowledge of medieval literature. The education that is required is of a highly technical nature that almost universally requires a high level of intelligence to achieve. Even after years of liberal immigration policies for technical professionals, the U.S. economy has failed to find enough of these professionals to fill available jobs. In Virginia alone, 18,000 computer programming jobs remain vacant because of a lack of skilled candidates.1

  Technology will solve its own problem. When techniques are available, there is little doubt that a parent willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to send his child to an Ivy League school to better his chances at success in life will be willing to spend far less to insert a "smart" gene into his progeny. As competitive pressures grow, such procedures will become widespread.

  Until now, open discussion of the morality of these practices has met with hysterical denouncements. Breeding improved human beings instantly brings to mind horrible images of Nazi eugenics programs seeking to improve the master race. Such fears are as obsolete as National Socialist ideology. The future of human genetic engineering lies not at the throne of a centralized dictator, but in the hands of millions of parents in the developed world. Such diffusement of power ensures that decisions about the nature of tomorrow's children will be as diverse as the population of today.

  Of course, the change won't happen overnight. Engineered children born at the beginning of this movement will compete favorably with the best and brightest of their non-engineered contemporaries, while otherwise going unnoticed. It is later in the movement that a more disturbing picture develops. Like the industrial revolution, the genetic revolution will initially leave some people behind. Less gifted children conceived without the aid of technology will be increasingly marginalized. A large underclass of the poor and weak may prove a destabilizing force to an increasingly wealthy, intelligent and healthy society.

  These predictions are horribly upsetting to our value system, precisely because our value system is rooted in a simpler age. As values evolve, acceptance will replace fear and we will look back on the outraged with the same amusement as we view the Ludddites who destroyed thier machines in a vain attempt to preserve their outdated values from the onset of the industrial revolution.

  The National Bioethics Advisory Commission members are the Luddites of today. But to a certain extent, we all are.

1. Washington Post Business Section, June 1997