The Slippery Slope of Biotechnology
by Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk
The idea of cloning makes people uncomfortable. At least until quite recently, that is. Most people had been ready to declare: “Cloning to make copies of people is wrong— that’s where I draw the line.” Usually they weren’t aware that cloning can be done for other reasons besides making a live-born baby. Often enough, they couldn’t go much further and explain exactly why they objected to cloning; yet they knew that it really didn’t feel right. Now the feelings are beginning to subside, to nobody’s surprise.
Early signs of trouble first appeared when researchers began proposing that there was a distinction to be made between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. They championed the idea that therapeutic cloning, which is done to obtain tissues for transplantation, is morally acceptable and distinct from reproductive cloning, which is done to produce babies. It’s a distinction without a difference, however, since the techniques involved in each type of cloning do not fundamentally differ. In other words, there is really only a single type of cloning, which can be carried out for either of two possible purposes. The crucial difference is what is done with the embryo made by cloning: Do you implant it into a womb, or destructively harvest it for its stem cells?
Losing Our Footing
The successful therapeutic cloning of human embryos, first carried out in South Korea, raised the issue to new prominence. Many have warned that allowing this type of “cloning-to-make-tissues” propels us further along that dark and ominous path that leads to making babies and infants who are clones. We are told that we stand a mere hair’s-breadth away from a slippery slope, on the verge of finding ourselves hurtling headlong. But slippery slopes are never quite that dramatic. They are slippery because we enter onto them almost without realizing it. They are slippery precisely because we manage to deceive ourselves about how slippery they really are, so that we become nearly oblivious to the fact that we are sliding along them at all.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is an impressive case-in-point. When it first came on the scene, it was quite a shock; now it’s routine. Many couples today are no longer troubled or beset by the moral dilemmas inherent in the technique. They generally fail to see how they are acting against the meaning and order of their own marriage by allowing a third party, the laboratory technician, to impregnate the wife, albeit artificially, in the place of her husband. They generally fail to see how IVF always violates the sacred link that exists between the generation of new life and the specific acts of marital intercourse which bind the two spouses together into one flesh. These same couples may also not see the profound unacceptability of producing numerous extra embryos which are routinely consigned to a fate of suspended animation in the deep freeze, not to mention the worse fate which may await them at the hands of eager embryonic stem cell researchers.
We have advanced so far along the IVF slope that these important moral objections hardly evoke a blip on the radar screens of our consciences any more. What has instead become allconsuming is whether we get a baby out of the process or not. If we attain the emotional satisfaction of holding a child in our arms at the end, then the means employed are automatically taken to be justified and good. The IVF slope that we have decided to travel along is itself the mere extension of another slope that we long ago decided to launch down, namely, the slope of contraception. To put it simply, contraception is sex without babies, while in vitro fertilization is the flip side: babies without sex.
Because we no longer perceive the basic moral problems resident at the heart of in vitro fertilization technologies, because we have unwittingly slid so far along that slope, it makes perfect sense to wonder whether cloning won’t similarly be accepted in the course of a few short years. Witnessing how the slippery slopes of biotechnology have been amply greased by our unwillingness to engage in a moral discourse rooted in principle rather than emotion, such a scenario seems quite plausible.
Politicians and others with vested interests in promoting cloning and embryonic stem cell research sometimes try to stress that such practices can be set up with “safeguards” and “guidelines.” With the aid of these safeguards and rubber-stamping ethical review committees, it becomes a facile exercise to sidestep the needed discussions about substance and focus solely on procedure and protocol for what is ultimately an unethical kind of science.
Because of these various slippery slopes, and because we live in an epoch which has already systematized the destruction of human beings for so long via elective abortion, we as a culture are nearly unable to discern the critical moral lines in these biotechnology debates. After all, which is really worse from a moral standpoint: to create a new child who is an identical twin brother to somebody else via cloning, allowing him to come to term and be born; or to create that same identical twin, for the conscious and premeditated purpose of contravening his life in order to harvest his tissues? Which is in fact the worse of the two? Yet many people seem to have it reversed, castigating reproductive cloning, while capitulating to therapeutic cloning.
Retracing Our Steps
We urgently need to retrace our steps at this critical juncture, and gather our moral wits about us, so that we might begin to confront the simple truth that therapeutic cloning represents a grave and imminent evil, a threat which is even more dangerous than the very serious threat which may one day arise from reproductive cloning. We also need to scrutinize exactly how we managed to go so far so fast, and repudiate in an unconditional way the various moral evils like contraception and in vitro fertilization that brought us here. These slippery slopes are slippery because they invite us to take only a small step or two, with subtle reassurances ringing in our ears, that doing good and curing diseases are all we desire, and that will surely suffice to protect us from any undue sliding. But slide we have, and perhaps much further than we realize, if we remain on the sidelines as therapeutic cloning insidiously becomes accepted practice within our scientific and medical communities.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk earned his Ph.D. in neuroscience at Yale University and did post-doctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, prior to completing advanced studies in Rome in theology and bioethics. He is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. Copyright © Catholics United for the Faith. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission from the author